Down at ‘Willy’s Workshop’
Woodwork runs in the blood of this hematology supervisor
Bill Levine makes a wine stopper out of Thuya wood in his basement wood shop. Recorder/Paul Franz
Bill Levine is the Lead Technician in the Hematology Lab at the Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. When he’s not at work, Levine can often be found in his basement doing woodwork. Recorder/Paul Franz
GREENFIELD — By day, Bill Levine analyzes blood samples as a hematology supervisor in Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s laboratory.
But by night, the 65-year-old Greenfield resident spends hours in his home workshop, building wooden toys and Christmas presents for family and friends.
Like every December, it’s been a busy month for Levine. It began with Baystate Franklin’s annual craft fair, an event he co-chairs that features the work of the hospital’s employees and volunteers. Profits from the event (typically $2,000 to $3,000) go to a different hospital unit each year, so that staffers can buy something that otherwise wouldn’t fit in the yearly budget.
And then, in the weeks leading up to the holidays, Levine buries himself in what he calls “Willy’s Workshop,” tinkering with new techniques and styles on his wooden lathe.
The gifts he makes range in size and purpose — everything from pens, tops and wine stoppers to cribbage boards and handmade banks. He’s convinced at least one child so far that he operates a North Pole satellite office, with the big man in red contracting out to him for toy-making services.
“I just have fun. I’ve never grown up,” said Levine. “I can stand in front of that lathe for two hours, end up with nothing but shavings up to my navel and no finished product and still feel great.”
A career in health
It would seem odd for a man who makes a living looking at blood, but there was a time when Levine couldn’t take more than a few steps inside a hospital without passing out.
His mom was sick a lot when he was growing up and Levine remembers hating the smell inside hospitals near his Dorchester home. Still, he was interested in science, and was fascinated by “Hemo the Magnificent,” a 1957 animated TV special about the body’s circulatory system.
In the late 1960s, he enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst to study English and journalism but dropped out and joined the Navy. He had dreams of spending time on the ocean as an aerial photographer but instead spent four years in Illinois performing medical duties as a corpsman.
Levine returned to UMass to earn a degree in public health. While pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science, he took a part-time job up the road in the Greenfield hospital’s lab. He never left.
“I still love doing it (and) I love the people I work with,” said Levine. “When you can ... still like coming to work, I think that’s a good thing.”
The lab, which analyzes blood, urine and stool samples, uses technology that’s changed a lot in the four decades Levine has been in the business.
Back when he first took the job, there were basic machines that could count cells in a person’s blood samples, he said.
Now, machines can tell what kind of cells are in the blood and separate them by type. The lab analyzes thousands of samples every day, with technologists studying the different chemical elements in the bloodstream to help diagnose patients.
A larger network
Levine likes that the relatively small lab staff (there are about 40 altogether) in the community hospital will often collaborate and ask each other for second opinions on blood sample readings. He and other technologists will occasionally look at other types of samples as well.
They even spend some time interacting with patients and drawing blood, an overlap Levine says wouldn’t usually happen in bigger hospitals. And while privacy laws limit the personal information that’s available to technologists, he said everyone is aware that their friends and neighbors’ samples will occasionally come across their desks.
As much as he appreciates the small size, he also likes being able to send complicated samples down to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield to be analyzed by staff with advanced specialities. The hospitals, and a network called Baystate Reference Laboratories, are all owned by the same parent company, Baystate Health.
Levine credits a trip from the Greenfield hospital to the Springfield one with saving his life about 10 years ago. He was working on top of a chicken coop, when he fell about 10 feet and landed on his head.
After Baystate Franklin emergency staff stabilized him, he was sent south to the Springfield hospital, where doctors were able to stop the bleeding in his brain.
“If it weren’t for the fact that we were affiliated with Baystate, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he said. “Sure it’s a big entity, but we’re a part of that entity.”
Crafters by night
Every summer, Levine helps organize the hospital’s annual “Wheeling for Healing” bike fundraiser for cancer services and programs. He’s an avid biker himself, logging about 2,000 miles last summer.
But it’s mostly through the craft fair where he is able to discover his fellow employees’ secret dual roles: weavers, glass blowers, spoon makers and jewelers.
Levine said he is always amazed to witness what his colleagues, who use their analytical and scientific minds at work, can do creatively at night. His wife, Diane, works as a hospital health unit clerk but then goes home to create stained glass artwork and weave twig furniture.
His woodmaking forays began over three decades ago, when Levine wanted to fix up his aging home. A friend offered to give him a tutorial, saying, “If you can build a box, you can build anything.” It’s true, said Levine.
And so he experiments, constantly making new things including furniture and adult-size rocking horses (although Levine prefers making other animals) and furniture. He even made a wooden bat for local radio personality Jay Fidanza and called it a “Willyville Slugger.”
All of Levine’s Christmas gifts this year to family and friends will have been made in “Willy’s Workshop.” He won’t get a lot of sleep leading up to the holidays, but he doesn’t seem to mind.