Mills-Peninsula Medical Center supporter Helen Canevari worked as a clinical laboratory scientist at MPMC, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and Sequoia Hospital for more than 40 years. Seeing firsthand many dramatic advances in biotechnology and laboratory capabilities over the years was exhilarating and empowering, she says, and made for a fascinating career.
I feel now is an important time to give back and maybe even inspire others.
Helen first joined Mills-Peninsula as an intern in 1972, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, launching an 18-year stint as a medical technologist at MPMC. She later worked at a local biotech company for several years, where she purified and isolated stem cells for transplantation.
In the early days of her career, Helen recalls, very few laboratory procedures were automated. “I was a jack-of-all-trades, taking blood samples in the morning and manually testing chemistry panels ordered by physicians, while answering the phone and coordinating specialty tests as required. It took until the 1980s for any of the work to be automated.” In addition to her official duties in the lab, Helen was often tapped as a translator for non-English-speaking patients at MPMC, thanks to her ability to speak three Chinese dialects in addition to English, Japanese and Indonesian.
In 2001, Helen began working at the Toxoplasma Serology Lab at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute, recently renamed the Dr. Jack S. Remington Laboratory for Specialty Diagnostics. Even then, much of her lab work was labor intensive. For example, molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing was a three-day process.
Ever the problem solver, Helen continuously strived to create efficiencies. Over the next several years, she contributed to efforts to automate PCR testing and make it more ergonomically friendly, lobbying for an automated plate washer to speed up antibody testing. Though she retired in 2014, Helen continued to keep up on lab innovations and scientific advances in her spare time.
Staying Engaged in Innovations
Helen has been a donor to Mills-Peninsula since the late 1980s, most recently in support of the Mobile Stroke Unit. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, she saw an opportunity for a new way to support healthcare in her community—by helping to upgrade the Remington Lab’s PCR testing capabilities, thus easing critical delays in community testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I would typically have visited my lab colleagues, but the pandemic made that impossible,” Helen says. “Instead, I called my former boss and asked if there was a way I could help them in the fight against COVID-19.”
Helen’s generosity resulted in the purchase of a KingFisher Flex automated extraction instrument for the lab. The new system, installed in December 2020, allows for the automated extraction of DNA/RNA and the processing of 96 samples at a time in just 30 minutes.
“Acquisition of the KingFisher has increased our lab’s testing capacity to 2,000 samples a week,” says Cindy Press, Remington Lab manager and Helen’s former boss. “This extraordinary gift from Helen reflects not only her giving spirit but her incredible loyalty to her healthcare career. Gifts from her and other donors have allowed us to respond in a timely manner to the pandemic, leveraging technology to benefit the entire Sutter Health community.”
All across the country, SARS-CoV-2 testing capabilities have at times been throttled by shortages of everything from pipettes to testing reagents. Acquiring the KingFisher system can be a highly competitive process, but the immediate availability of funds made possible by Helen’s gift, combined with a coordinated effort with the Sutter Health lab and IT departments, allowed the team to secure the instrument quickly— and take on some of the testing workload from the main Sutter Shared Laboratory in Livermore.
“One unexpected benefit of the KingFisher system is it appears to be capable of screening for new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Press says. “We are now working with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to route suspected samples for further testing and screen for early cases as they reach Northern California.”
An Adventurous and Generous Spirit
Born into an upper-class family in Shanghai, Helen saw her childhood world vanish when her family fled communist China in 1950, leaving everything behind. Thanks to her father’s knowledge of English and Japanese, they were able to live in several places, including Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. This made it necessary for Helen to learn the languages of each country, and she credits her ability to learn English to studying Latin and French during those formative years.
After the sudden death of her father, her mother brought her three children to the U.S. under the sponsorship of Helen’s uncle, who owned two restaurants in San Mateo. During her summer breaks from UC Berkeley, Helen worked as a waitress, first for her uncle and later in her mother’s own restaurant. “All of my college expenses were paid through scholarships, so I could save my earnings and tips,” she says. “Working hard and saving early on have allowed me to give back to the community now.”
Helen loves to travel, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Dubai, China, Panama and Hawaii in 2019 alone, but the pandemic halted her vacations. The forced grounding has given her time to focus on her own health while also working to help the community.
Difficulty walking in recent years had led Helen to choose cruises as her primary mode of travel prior to the pandemic. But after knee surgery in 2020, following two earlier hip replacements under the expert care of PAMF’s John Lannin, M.D., she can now walk normally, without a limp. The recovery from knee surgery took a bit longer than those of her earlier hip replacement procedures, but Helen says it was worth the results. “I guess I’m a bionic woman now,” she jokes.
Not long ago, Helen reconnected with high school friends from Hong Kong. Now scattered all over the world, they reunited to travel together before the pandemic and still keep in touch on WhatsApp. “I look forward to traveling again with friends and my daughter Laura when it is safe,” she says.
Helen also plans to continue staying abreast of laboratory innovations. “After working for 44 years in healthcare, I feel now is an important time to give back and maybe even inspire others,” she says. “Even though I’m retired, the labs will always be a part of who I am, and I am very happy to be in a position to help now and in the future.”