Mary Ann Rutkowski remembers the day she chose her future career – at the mall.
As a high-schooler, she was at a career day event when someone handed her a flier about the field of cytology. Intrigued, she read about microscopes and cancer detection, picturing herself behind a 'scope someday.
A native of the Utica region, she graduated from Upstate Medical Center and went on to complete a clinical semester at URMC to become a certified cytotechnologist.
It was the summer of 1978, and she was 20 years old when she was offered a job in the URMC Department of Pathology and Lab Medicine. She hasn't looked back since and on May 6, Rutkowski will retire from that same position after 38 years.
Here, she shares some reflections on her long and successful career.
Do you remember your teachers from your clinical semester at URMC?
Dr. Stanley F. Patten, Jr. wrote the textbooks. He laid the groundwork for how you not only diagnose cancer but the pre-cancerous conditions, which are so important. I have had so many wonderful mentors throughout my tenure here. Many were really pioneers in the field. Drs. Bonfiglio, Wilbur, Stoler are just a few that come to mind. Florence Patten also had a major influence on my formative years as a cytotech.
I still find it kind of frustrating when we get a case of cervical cancer which should be 100 percent preventable. It’s usually in people who may not have insurance, or something prevents them from getting annual screenings.
How has microscope technology changed since you started?
We used to look at a lot of conventional slides where you smear the material onto the slide, and it was very difficult to see. It was thick, not well stained, and air dried, so there were a lot of technical problems. It was challenging in a fun kind of way to decipher what was going on in these conventional smears.
Probably in the early 1990s, liquid-based technology really revolutionized cervical cancer screening and took that element of poor quality out of the picture. It was definitely a much needed advancement. That’s where we are today placing a pap sample in a solution and removing error the doctor may make in making the slides.
What has been your favorite part of the job overall?
The part I enjoy most is when we go out on our aspiration biopsy procedures because we get to see the patients and we’re reminded that it’s not just a piece of glass that we have on a microscope. We may see their family, friends – their support personnel – with them. Even though we can never get to know them personally because then you lose your objectivity, I’ve always enjoyed going out and playing an “active” role in obtaining diagnostic material. The first step for our patients towards treatment is getting the answer; that is the role we play.
Do you think some people choose this profession because it’s not patient-facing?
Perhaps. That’s what attracted me to it – it has some patient contact but not an extreme amount. I admire people who take care of people who are quite sick. It’s a tough job. We are the people who are behind the scenes.
In addition to patients, what has it been like to work with partnering agencies?
We have had some wonderful clinicians who get referrals from all over this part of the state. I think we take it for granted because we’ve worked with them for so long, but these people come from Buffalo and the Southern Tier because they don’t have access to people with the expertise to do endoscopies or the various invasive procedures. For me it’s rewarding that we’re on the same team. They’re trying to stick a needle in a target and we’re trying to interpret that material accurately to the best of our ability.
How do you plan to spend retirement?
Life’s a gift and when you’re around people who have a lot of health problems you’re reminded that if you have your health, you should enjoy it and not complain. I hope to travel and I enjoy photography (an amateur shutterbug). My husband and I have a little cabin on 30 acres in the middle of nowhere on the top of a mountain in Naples that we’ve nicknamed “the bungalow.” I suspect I will be there more often.
Rochester has been our home for 30 years … When you’re here this long, this becomes your home and we have friends here. We live right in the Highland Park area and love city living, being close to things, and that park is so unique. That was my goal: to be retired before the Lilac Festival (laughs).
It’s rare these days to hear about someone sticking with the same job for 38 years. What has kept you around so long?
I never really wanted to leave, (and) even now it’s bittersweet. I feel like I have friends here, not just coworkers. We’ve always worked as a team and that’s what has allowed us to survive, helping each other out. That’s what I think has kept me here as long as I have. It can be stressful some days but we help each other out. The days go by fast and the weeks go by even faster. And the years! I blinked and here I am 38 years later. I truly have had the time of my life here at the U of R.
Do you have any advice for young people starting their careers?
Make sure you set your goals and do something you enjoy doing. You may not stay as long in one place, but no matter what, make sure you enjoy it and appreciate what you have instead of looking at the glass as half-empty.