Rekhi's long life of science

Memories of the early days and fascination with today keep retirement far from the mind of Rani Rekhi
clinical technologist Rani Rekhi
A clinical technologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Rani Rekhi is as enthusiastic about her job today as she was more than 34 years ago, when she was hired by transplant pioneer and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas. Photo by Dean Forbes

Over the years, countless Hutchinson Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) employees have gone the extra mile to do the best job possible.

Few, however, have ever gone farther than Paramjit (Rani) Rekhi once offered to go.

Today, Rekhi is a part-time clinical technologist with the SCCA, but her roots extend to the beginning of bone-marrow transplant research. Hired in 1972 as a lab tech by transplant pioneer and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, Rekhi went on to spend 20-plus years as a supervisor in the Center's hematology lab.

Rekhi's tenure spanned a period of rapid progress, growth and technological change — including moving from primarily manual laboratory procedures to more automated systems. Rekhi said one of her most memorable experiences came when she asked Thomas about purchasing an automated cell counter to speed up the daily process of counting white blood cells — a key indicator of how patients are responding to their transplants.

Strong leader, team player

Thomas told her no such machine existed — at least not one that could accurately count the minuscule number of white cells present during the early stages of recovery. Rekhi persisted, and Thomas ultimately gave her the green light to shop for a machine.

Eventually, she found one. The price tag was $80,000 — steep for the mid-1980s — but Rekhi was convinced the automated cell counter would be worth the cost. She urged Thomas to purchase it, capping her plea with a bold — but serious — offer. "I guarantee you it will work," she told him. "If it doesn't work, I will reimburse you."

Much to Rekhi's relief, the machine more than met expectations. The same can be said of Rekhi. "Rani was a strong leader as well as an excellent team player," Thomas said. "She worked many long hours, as did much of the staff, in the early days of the transplant program since the workload was always larger than the staff."

The Thomas-led transplant program was still part of the University of Washington when Rekhi joined the team. She and her husband, Joginder, are originally from India. Joginder came here first, earning his master's degree in civil and structural engineering at the UW before returning to India to marry Rani.

The couple soon came back to Seattle. Joginder went to work for an engineering firm (he later became a chief engineer for the city). Rani, who had earned a master's degree in zoology from Punjab University in India, joined the UW Health Sciences Department as a research tech. "My goal was to get a job where I could use my science degree and earn my bread and butter," she said.

Inspirational environment

A few years later, Rekhi interviewed with Thomas for an opening in the adult leukemia center. "I went to work there the next day," she said.

Working with Thomas was a privilege, Rekhi said. "He is a great and wonderful man. You couldn't find another man like him in the world," she said. Rekhi especially appreciated the way he treated the staff, offering people rides during a snowstorm, encouraging them to remain home if they needed to care for a sick child and giving credit to everyone involved — colleagues, nurses and research techs — when he won the Nobel Prize.

Rekhi enjoyed the excitement surrounding the early days of transplant research when doctors, eager to learn how their patients were progressing, would literally stand over her shoulder as she peered into a microscope counting white cells.

Thomas called Rekhi "a friendly person who is generous to her associates and brings back exotic gifts from her home in India to the delight of her friends."

Doug Howlett, SCCA lab manager and Rekhi's current supervisor, praised her adaptability. "I attribute Rani's longevity to her willingness to always learn new things, new procedures, new instruments," he said. "Rani always wants to learn. Even now, Rani is not yet ready to talk about retirement."

Health issues forced Rekhi to reduce her role and start working part time 12 years ago. While much about her job has changed over the years, one thing remains the same. "The best thing I like about working here is that the Center and SCCA are doing a great job and they have a great reputation," she said.

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