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NH Guantanamo Bay Lt. named as Subspecialty Officer of the Year

Image of Navy Lt. Ara Gutierrez, Naval Readiness and Training Command Guantanamo Bay, was selected Navy Medicine’s Medical Technology Subspecialty Junior Officer of the Year for 2020. Navy Lt. Ara Gutierrez, Naval Readiness and Training Command Guantanamo Bay, was selected Navy Medicine’s Medical Technology Subspecialty Junior Officer of the Year for 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Dawn Grimes)

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain not only on frontline healthcare workers, but also the medical laboratory professionals who perform COVID-19 testing behind the scenes. Medical laboratory professionals who have rarely been in public view are now thrust in the spotlight.

For 2020, Navy Lt. Ara Gutierrez, Naval Readiness and Training Command Guantanamo Bay (NMRTC GB), was selected Navy Medicine’s Medical Technology Subspecialty Junior Officer of the Year.

”For our isolated duty station, getting supplies and resources as efficiently and quickly as possible is paramount in delivering patient care and it’s especially important for the laboratory department,” she explained. Gutierrez, who is the only military medical technologist on island explained, “We developed mitigation strategies to enhance chain of custody and reduce turnaround time for laboratory samples to get to reference laboratories.”

At the onset of the pandemic, US Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay (USNH GB), located aboard Naval Station Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba, turnaround time for the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 was 72 hours. Under Gutierrez’s leadership, the laboratory was able to reduce turnaround time to just 15 minutes.

“As of today, we currently have three methodologies to perform testing for COVID, one methodology to test for COVID-19 antibodies and two methodologies to test for the COVID virus.” Gutierrez explained, “The fact that we have multiple ways to test for COVID and COVID antibodies makes the hospital very self-sufficient and prepared if we ever run out of supplies for one analyzer since we would have redundancy in our capabilities.”

“Lieutenant Gutierrez’s accomplishments have been nothing short of exceptional.” stated Navy Cmdr. Shawn Weber, NMRTC GB’s Clinical Support Services director. “From her guidance in the medical laboratory to her leadership within the command, wardroom, Medical Service Corps Association, and diversity committee, she’s shown how highly capable she is. I’m extremely pleased and not surprised she was chosen.”

Gutierrez, who joined the Navy on the 69th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said she was genuinely surprised and honored to represent medicine’s "hidden profession”, when she learned about her selection.

“I just made Lieutenant last March and gave birth a month after. I didn't think that my efforts would be enough to compete, let alone be selected.” Gutierrez who has also served on the USNS Mercy and at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego in California continued, “Compared to others who didn't have to deal with maternity leave and balancing their daily work, military life, and being a first time mom I wasn't sure that I was enough.”

Gutierrez, started medical training in the Philippines. “While in school I felt there would be more opportunities for me to serve sick people and help my family if I attended school in the US.” To the Navy’s fortune, while in school, Gutierrez stayed with her uncle, a retired U.S. Navy chief.

“He mentored me about the possibility of being a Navy corpsman and a few weeks later I enlisted.” Celebrating her two year Guantanamo Bay anniversary this month, Gutierrez said she is happy and humbled to represent her team at NMRTC GB in this unique way.

“With how isolated our duty station is, our efforts might not as apparent, but this award really highlights the effort that is required because of our limited resources and challenging supply chain.” She added, “It’s an all-in effort by our laboratory department and I’m honored to have been able to contribute for our patients.”

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