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Military spouse makes mid-life career change thanks to APSU to medical profession in Defense Department

Lara Pellum

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – A medical laboratory scientist at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, is proof that it is never too late to pursue your dream job.

At 37, Lara Pellum enjoyed her job at the Fort Campbell Soldier for Life Center working with soldiers transitioning from the U.S. Army.

The spouse of an Air Force veteran, she had worked for more than five years teaching career technical training and transition classes to service members and their families separating or retiring from active duty.

It was during her duties one day back in 2017 that her path in life would change. She joined her students in completing a two-hour career assessment that was part of a new SFL class. The test, not previously offered at SFL, was designed to identify career fields that best align with an individual’s interests and aptitude.

“I had my students taking the assessment and I decided to take it with them in order to understand what I was teaching them,” said Pellum, curious about the new curriculum.

When her test results came back, she said she was surprised. Her top match wasn’t teaching, but a health sciences career called medical laboratory scientist.

“I didn’t even know what that was,” Pellum said.

She said that she thought she’d get something related to teaching.

“I had never heard of that career field and later as I was researching, it was mind-blowing,” she said. “It was like a lightbulb moment for me. This sounds like something I’ve always wanted to do, what I’m meant to do. I’ve always wanted to go into a medical field.”

When she was younger, Pellum said she was interested in health sciences, but her career path took a different route. She began as an employee training-coordinator in the private sector, next conducting new hire orientation for several years and ultimately working as a contract employee at the SFL Center on Fort Campbell.

“As I stood there in front of 50 soldiers trying to help them find what they wanted to do in life after the military it hit me,” she said. “I wasn’t doing what I was called to do. So, I went home and told my husband I was going to quit my job and go back to school. I told him that I was going to go back to school and then I was going to work at [Blanchfield Army Community Hospital] and continue giving back to this community, only in a different way.

“We were in the middle of building a house at that time, so if you could imagine me coming home and telling my husband I’m going back to school to chase my dream,” Pellum said with a laugh. “It probably sounded pretty crazy.”

But that is exactly what she did.

“I think he is really proud that I’ve followed through and did everything I said I was going to do,” said Pellum, referring to her husband who gave her his full support.

She began her new journey by meeting with an academic advisor at Austin Peay State University. Pellum already had a bachelor’s degree. The adviser’s review of her college transcript would determine how many credits would transfer.

Unfortunately, most of her previous classes didn’t match the prerequisites for a Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Science. Her adviser informed her that she would need three additional years of college to earn the specialized health sciences degree.

Undeterred, she proceeded with her education and also focused on building her work experience in a medical laboratory.

“While I was in school, I went to Murray-Calloway County Hospital in Murray, Kentucky, and started out as a lab assistant in 2017,” Pellum said. She said that she wanted any kind of experience working in a lab that she could get. “I wasn’t a lab scientist yet, but I got exposed to a lot of responsibilities in the lab and learned a lot.”

For three years Pellum balanced attending classes, completing her coursework, working in a lab and being a wife and mother. She excelled in her college studies and would eventually graduate at the top of her class. While in school, she said that she remained vocal about wanting to work at the hospital on Fort Campbell.

“I believe that when you say you want something, the more people who are aware will help you get to it,” said Pellum.

And as fate would have it, after speaking at a conference in Clarksville, attended by health sciences students and instructors from Austin Peay, the medical laboratory manager from Blanchfield introduced herself to an instructor from the university.

“I was trying to recruit from a lot of different places because there is a shortage of medical laboratory scientists and lab techs nationwide,” said Maj. Sarah Matthews, who was serving as Blanchfield’s medical laboratory manager at the time. “We’re fortunate that a college so close to the hospital has a medical laboratory scientist program.”

Matthews told the instructor about a website where students could see current job announcements for the hospital.

Pellum said that after her instructor told her about job opportunities at Blanchfield, she logged on to USAJobs.gov. It is a website that serves as the central location for federal agencies, like Department of Defense, to post job openings for civilian employees in the federal workforce.

She applied for a position in Blanchfield's lab as a generalist, which is someone who works in all sections.

“The requirement for this position at Blanchfield is to hold a medical laboratory technician certification which is a lower-level position for someone with an MLS degree, but I wanted to get my foot in the door,” said Pellum, who accepted the position. She progressed through the federal hiring process and while awaiting the completion of her background investigation required for employment in a military treatment facility, an MLS position opened. It fell within a Direct-Hire Authority and since she was qualified, she would be eligible to fill that position once her background check was complete.

Pellum proved to be an exceptional employee. In short time, she was promoted to lead tech, and now, two years later she was recently promoted to a supervisory position in the lab.

“I found my place here. I was already happy at SFL and I never thought I’d be happier doing something other than what I was already doing, but I always emphasized to the students in the SFL program to find a career that they enjoyed,” said Pellum. “I am a walking demonstration that it truly works. This is absolutely where I am meant to be.”

The Military Health System has a number of job openings for healthcare and healthcare support professionals at military treatment facilities nationwide. Opportunities exist in medicine, dentistry, nursing, mental health, allied health professions, administration, research, and numerous technical fields.

To learn more about civilian careers in the Military Health System visit https://www.health.mil/About-MHS/Employment.

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