Working the holidays at Fred Hutch

Cancer doesn't take the holidays off and neither does Fred Hutch
Photo of a Fred Hutch technician in Comparative Medicine working on an experiment.
Comparative Medicine Technician Natalya Montalto puts on a biohazard suit in the vivarium at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, December 24, 2022. Montalto, an 18-year Fred Hutch employee is from Ukraine, and several of her family members are suffering through power outages as the war with Russia rages through the holiday. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The holiday break is a time to pause and gather with family and friends, a time for reflection, a time for rest. But the Fred Hutch campus is not really at rest. A few hearty souls are at work. Mostly out of sight — you’d miss them if you weren’t looking closely, but they are here keeping buildings secure, seeing patients, and pushing through experiments that can’t wait.

We spent Christmas Eve with co-workers who toiled while most of us rested. Not one of them complained. Some thought of the day as just another Saturday, but it’s easy to see that the holidays are a little brighter because of their labors.

In the early-afternoon hours of Christmas Eve, Natalya Montalto has already been at her job in Comparative Medicine since 5:30 a.m. “I like my job. I’ve worked here for 18 years, and I’m still learning new things,” Montalto said while donning a full biohazard suit she’ll wear for the remainder of her shift.

Snapping a face shield onto what looks a little like a white combat helmet, Montalto’s thoughts drift to her family members suffering through the war in Ukraine.

“They have no electricity, and my mom has to cook outside in the winter,” she said, her voice softened and muffled by the fully enclosed helmet.

Photo of a Fred Hutch security guard staring at monitors..
Security guard Mohammad Naemi watches over the security camera monitors in the Fred Hutch Control Room. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In another part of the building, Security’s Mohammad Naemi scans the Control Room monitors. He’s keeping a watchful eye over campus via security cameras installed throughout the buildings. “From here I can see all the doors and lobbies,” he said. 

The walkie-talkie on Naemi’s desk crackles to life; it’s his colleague, Nafisa Bakar, checking in after one of her campus patrols. She’s coming in to eat a quick lunch before heading back out on patrol, something she’ll do several times this cold, rainy night.

A petite woman, Bakar is shy at first meeting, but opens like a bottle of champagne that’s popped its cork when I join her for the next campus patrol.

“I don’t get scared outside at night because I’m in close contact with the Control Room,” she said. Bringing the walkie-talkie to her mouth, she speaks in code with Mohammad back in the Control Room as she waves at a security camera, moving quickly through the darkness.

“You have to keep moving to stay warm,” Bakar joked, darting from one building to the next. “I check all the external doors and I watch for suspicious cars and people.”

She pulls the handle of a side door at the Thomas building and a few minutes later we’re back in the Control Room with Mohammad.  When asked about working the holiday shift, both smile and say, almost in unison, “We’re Muslim.”

Bakar’s eyes sparkle in the blue monitor light of the control room. “So, working this shift is not a hardship for us,” she said.

Photograph of nursing assistants wipe down a patient room.
Nursing Assistants Ameluerk Guangul, left, and Hanna Tsegaye clean a patient room in the South Lake Union clinic. Patient load wasn’t at full capacity on Christmas Eve, but it wasn’t a slow day either. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Over on the southeast corner of campus, the clinic building appears quiet, but a line of cars drops patients off at the front door. Inside, an elderly woman carefully pushes the button inside the elevator, and it begins to rise.

“I can’t believe I’m here on Christmas Eve,” she said from behind her mask. Her voice is sad. Her daughter reaches out to rub her mom’s shoulder as the elevator door opens to a surprisingly busy 5th floor.

Patients, escorted by staff, shuffle down hallways to exam rooms where nurses pause to read charts before slipping in. Another patient, across the hall, leaves. A nursing assistant pulls the sheets off the exam bed and wipes everything down before the patient reaches the elevator.

Photo of patient access coordinator answering phones on Christmas Eve at Fred Hutch's treatment center..
Patient Access Coordinator Leydaly Ramirez takes a call at the 5th floor nurses station in the South Lake Union clinic. Ramirez says her job is kind of like being an air traffic controller. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In the middle of this beehive of activity sits Patient Access Coordinator Leydaly Ramirez. She’s on the phone, having a serious conversation about scheduling as her eyes flit from one monitor to another.

“My job is a little like being an air traffic controller,” she said. Nurses, prepared for take-off, pause at the nurses’ station behind Ramirez. She finishes the conversation and drops the phone back in its cradle. It rings again. 

Photo of staff scientist working in a lab on Christmas Eve.
Staff Scientist Heungwon Park creates a new cell line in the tissue culture room in the Subramaniam Lab. Park wanted to do the work on Friday, but the icy weather prevented him from getting to campus. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Silent night has descended on the Weintraub building at the other end of campus. Dim blue-green light from computer monitor screen savers provide the only illumination in most labs. A freezer motor turns on somewhere deep in the building. The noise echoes past the closed door of the tissue culture room of the Subramaniam Lab where Staff Scientist Heungwon Park sits hunched at a hooded bench, creating a new cell line.

“I wanted to do this yesterday, but the ice storm prevented me from getting here,” Park said.

Photo of a graduate research assistant working in a Fred Hutch lab.
Graduate Research Assistant Violet Sorrentino couldn’t get to campus Friday because of icy road conditions. So, she came into the Singhvi lab on Christmas Eve to make sure her experiment stays on track. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Graduate Research Assistant Violet Sorrentino, working in another part of the building, has a similar story. Seattle’s Friday ice storm prevented her from getting to campus to feed the worms that are being studied for an experiment in the Singhvi Lab.

“I can’t let them go without being fed because it could alter the outcome of the experiment,” she said, staring into the eyepiece of a microscope perched at the end of a bench.

Photo of technician working in an office at Fred Hutch on Christmas Eve.
Comparative Medicine Technician Andrea Calvillo catches up on office work. Calvillo, who normally works Saturday shifts, doesn’t consider working Christmas Eve a hardship. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

It's getting late, and Technician Andrea Calvillo is wrapping up paperwork back in the Comparative Medicine office. Pausing, she pulls a small drawing off the wall of her cubicle. Smiling, lost in a memory, she doesn’t notice Security’s Nafisa Bakar passing her office door, headed out into the darkness for another Christmas Eve campus patrol. 

Photo of a Fred Hutch security guard on duty on Christmas Eve.
Security’s Nafisa Bakar checks external doors and lobbies during one of her Christmas Eve campus patrols. Bakar, a small woman, says she doesn’t really get scared while on patrol because she is in near constant communication with the Security Control room via walkie-talkie. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Robert Hood, senior multimedia editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, is a longtime photojournalist who grew up in newspapers and most recently worked at NBC News Digital and, directing multimedia operations. Reach him at

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