PHO’s laboratory jack-of-all-trades: A lifetime of experience to solve complex problems and address client needs
Watch Erik talk about his work.
Public health outbreaks are complex. Managing foodborne or infectious disease outbreaks effectively requires the cooperation of many players and the coordination of substantial information. That’s where Erik Kristjanson comes in. As one of the people responsible for incident response and outbreak coordination at the labs, he uses his years of diverse experience to connect people and information when responding to situations and addressing clients’ needs.
When a potential outbreak is identified across multiple health units, it’s a critical time of coordination for public health. PHO leads the assessment of the situation, including analyzing various sources of data, conducting laboratory testing, and examining trends and patterns across the province. As Kristjanson says, “I’m part of the PHO laboratory incident management team. We help to coordinate the laboratory response during high-level disease and outbreak investigations.” During provincial assessment calls with stakeholders like the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and the public health units, Kristjanson routinely represents PHO’s labs. Throughout the investigation, he is a key contact with clients and partners, getting them the right laboratory testing information they need to respond quickly to the situation.
As he explains, “In this job you have to be a good listener, communicator and bridge builder. I help health units address their specific public health or lab testing issue by clarifying how tests and laboratory processes work. While we have established procedures, sometimes unusual situations arise where additional or specialized testing may be requested through the labs’ front-line Customer Service Centre. I work with the lab microbiologists and the lab managers to determine the best way forward, and then discuss the plan with the health unit to see if it fits their need. During last year’s measles outbreak I was on calls with health units, providing support to ensure they knew what samples were required and when testing would be done. I also worked with the microbiologists to make sure their advice was communicated to inform clinical decisions and outbreak management.”
What helps him do his work are his years of service. Kristjanson started with the public health laboratories in 1984 as a medical technologist and over the years has worked in various sections, including the virology lab. “Because I’ve been here for 31 years, I have insight into how the system works, the tests, the people, and the history. I take that knowledge and come up with creative solutions to problems that others might not think of. In my job, every day is different.” Dr. Fran Jamieson, medical microbiologist, describes Kristjanson as the labs’ “jack-of-all-trades” who colleagues and clients can count on to help with anything unusual that comes their way.
But, as he says, incident and outbreak response requires an amazing amount of teamwork. “I work with such amazing people. From my colleague, Romy Olsha, to the medical and clinical microbiologists, the lab managers and staff, and other program staff across PHO—we work together to solve problems.”
Kristjanson’s passion for PHO’s work is a family affair. His wife, Edna, has worked at the labs for many years as well. He credits her understanding and support for his ability to do his job so effectively.
Kristjanson isn’t fazed by the challenging and sensitive nature of his job as outbreak coordinator. “Potentially there is so much stress in my job, and I’m certainly involved in a lot of high-pressure, time-sensitive activities, but I absolutely love my job, helping everyone, and watching how well the system works. But I’m not alone. I see this same dedication mirrored by all of the people I work with each day at PHO and our stakeholders in the public health and broader health care communities.”