ORANGE CITY—When Donna Morehead looked to hire a lab technician to work at Orange City Area Health System about four years ago, she did not initially think to hire candidates from the other side of the world.
But after receiving no applications from candidates in the United States, the hospital lab manager tried a new approach in April 2018 that ultimately led to her hiring two fully trained lab technicians from the Philippines.
Morehead said she got in contact with the lab manager at Floyd Valley Healthcare in LeMars, which previously hired four lab scientists from the Philippines. The LeMars lab manager gave Morehead the name of her recruiter.
“We reached out to that recruiter and said ‘Hey, we have an opening we’re not able to fill. Are you able to, you know, get us some applicants to look at?’” Morehead said.
Four months later, Kathleen Gaabucayan came to Orange City from the Philippines on an H1B work visa.
The 27-year-old said she had never been to the United States before and that the transition took some getting used to.
“It was really hard for me,” she said, noting she would become homesick.
However, she said the people in Orange City and her co-workers at hospital were welcoming, which made the transition easier. She soon also had a familiar face from home working alongside her.
When another position opened in the lab soon after Gaabucayan arrived — the hospital again did not receive applicants—Gaabucayan suggested they hire her friend and former co-worker from the Philippines, Dara Daynos.
Morehead said she again reached out to the recruiter. By January, Daynos was working at hospital on an H1B work visa.
Like Gaabucayan, her arrival in the United States came with challenges — the first one being the winter weather.
“I was stuck in Chicago for three days,” said Daynos, 26.
Although the weather was frigid, she received a warm welcome when she came to Orange City and enjoyed working with her co-workers.
Morehead said Gaabucayan and Daynos had completed all of their lab schooling in their home country at Liceo de Cagayan University.
Additionally, each already had five years of hospital experience from working at Madonna and Child Hospital.
“So, it’s not like they just got done with school and are here,” Morehead said.
Part of the difficulty Morehead experienced finding lab techs was because so few nearby colleges were graduating lab tech students.
One of the closest schools that offers a two-year lab tech program is Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge; however, attracting graduates from there is difficult unless they have a connection to N’West Iowa, she said.
Nearby schools like Northwestern College in Orange City, Dordt University in Sioux Center and the University of South Dakota in Vermillion offer four-year lab tech programs. Those three schools also have a partnership with the St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and MercyOne Siouxland Medical in Sioux City, where students can train during their fourth year.
“But that program together only puts out 10 students every year, so that’s not a high number of students graduating from that program,” Morehead said.
Gaabucayan and Daynos’ work in the lab includes a range of duties and differs day to day. When patients need to be tested for illnesses, for instance, Gaabucayan said she and Daynos are the ones who draw their blood, test it and help make diagnoses. They also are responsible for using and maintaining various machines in the lab.
Daynos said their shifts in the lab change depending on the day: They could work a 12-hour shift one day and a shorter or longer shift the next day.
When they are not in the lab, Gaabucayan and Daynos enjoy traveling and meeting with other hospital lab techs from the Philippines who work in Iowa and neighboring states.
Since moving to Iowa, Daynos and Gaabucayan said they have learned to become more independent since they are away from their families — even though Gaabucayan said her mother has called her twice a day since she moved to Iowa. They also have had to adjust to living in a city much smaller than what they are used to.
Gaabucayan is originally from Cagayan De Oro, a city with a population of more than 675,000 people, while Daynos is from Gingoog, which has more than 120,000 residents.
Daynos and Gaabucayan’s work visas will last for three years, Morehead said. Partway through their second year, she will speak with them to see if they would like to renew their visas for an additional three years.
Daynos and Gaabucayan said they hope to renew their visas and continuing working in Orange City.