Artic have been working with the Haematology department (which, in fact, also includes blood transfusion and immunology) at the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. The brief is to make transparent the work that the department does, and the nature of ‘work’, and what that means in this context, has become a key focus.
The department's working environment, working conditions, and working methods are both instantly recognisable and unnervingly alien. A mixture of off-the-shelf desk setup (computer, papers, pens, silly office gizmos) sits alongside cutting-edge machinery which is used with factory-like off-handedness.
Staff are seemingly always on the move, between computer screens, machines, index cards, stacks of samples and consultations with each other. Around a thousand blood samples pass through their hands for testing every day. And, like many jobs, most of the work starts flooding in just as it’s getting near going-home time. Given this much work, you’d think they were understaffed – which they are – but, thankfully, the machines do much of the work, and also keep the blood sealed, which makes for a very clean (and safe) environment. One member of staff remembers, in the old days, when cigarettes and coffee sat on tables next to open-topped samples of blood..
The website www.haematology.org has a screensaver you can download (for free) which illustrates ‘the appearance of erythropoietic porphyria red cells when viewed under near UV light.’ Or, one might say, an animation of nice floaty objects. The site also contains some amazing microscopic images of blood cells which show a number of problems. There’s something of the mystic involved with being able to determine so much information from what looks like a miniature landscape of red blobs (a bit like reading tea-leaves), but, unlike the mystic, there’s something infinitely comforting in knowing that these tea-leaves can be scientifically deciphered, and solutions applied accordingly.
Blips, clicks, & whirrs:
The working patterns of the Haematology department are as distinctive sonically as they are visually, and, once again, they are a curious mixture of the familiar and the foreign. Fingers fly across computer keyboards in rhythms set by repetitive data inputting tasks. Individual blood samples are fed into the system using bleeping bar codes. Complex machines, with pet names like Wallace and Gromit, drone, whirr, pulse, click, and send out metallic probes with 'voices' that resemble the cooing of pigeons or the soundtracks of 1970s TV science fiction series. Centrifuges whine upwards to their triumphant final pings. The staff can practically set their watches by this strange symphony, and are impressively alert to wrong notes (at least one machine apparently has its fault noise set to the pitch of crying babies, demanding immediate attention). Out in the adjoining corridors, the eerie aural monotony of the air-conditioning provides a kind of respite.