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Saturday, October 31, 2009


I hate needles.

When my mother would take me to the doctor and I needed to be poked, I would recoil from needles in such a way she would say, "Alexander! Thank goodness you will never go into the military. If you were captured you would reveal all the secrets to the enemy if they tortured you."

Feeling shame in front of the nurse holding the syringe, I would bite my lower lip, stare at the anatomy chart taped to the wall, suffer through the needle prick and ride home in silence.

Once, in Australia (I was six or seven), my whole family needed to get yellow fever shots in advance of our trip to Africa. I threw such a fit the doctor could not get close to me. My father picked me up and walked me around outside for a while, speaking in soothing tones.

He said, "Everyone needs to get these shots to protect us from a deadly disease. If we want to go on this family trip we all need to get the shot. If you decide you don't want the shot—and this is your choice—we'll just cancel the big trip to Africa and stay home instead, missing out on all the fun safaris, missing out on the zebras, the lions, the cheetahs, the hyenas and the impalas."

"Sounds reasonable," I said. "We'll stay home then."

I'm not sure how, but I found myself back in the injection chamber. My mother was next up, and I remember everyone in the room laughing, pretending that getting a shot was this fun, exciting new experience. The doctor laughed ("I poke you now! Pokey, pokey!") and my mother laughed when the needle went into her flesh. The doctor took his hands away and let the syringe flap up and down as it hung out of my mother's arm. She laughed at it and jiggled her arm to make the needle move in funny directions. I was not amused.

The doctor said to me, "You want to push the plunger in?"

I did not.

My mother said, "See? This doesn't hurt!" She laughed and jigged her arm again. "You can push the plunger in if you want. It will be funny!"

I failed to see the humor.

I don't remember past that point.  I only have a vague memory of a flash of bright lights, a flood of tears, leather straps (I could be imagining that part) and an unspeakable, searing pain so unbearable I'm sure I let half the city of Melbourne know just what I was feeling.

As I have grown up, nothing has changed.

But I have noticed that nurses at least appreciate the honesty of a grown man admitting displeasure with injections. I say the same thing every time: "Aaargh. I HATE needles." Then I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I think male nurses in particular admire that I don't act macho in front of them, that I don't pretend to "take it like a man" or whatever male bonding ("Yo!") thing you are supposed to do. (To this day, I have never understood that.) The nurses, I figure, have given thousands of injections or blood draws and have seen every reaction. If they see my honesty and my vulnerability, they try harder to make mine perfect.

For my most recent MRI, I was so tired of the recent parade of needles the tech knew this intuitively. Before I could even utter my first words, he calmed me with, "Don't worry, don't worry. I'm good." And—true to his word—he was. I could barely feel the needle going into my vein. It was so subtle I wasn't even sure he had done it. The only way I knew for sure was when he untied the rubber tubing cutting off the circulation to my arm.

"Wait, is that IT?" I asked.

"That's it," he said. "Easy, huh?"

"Wow. You are good."

"Men are easy," he said. "Little old ladies are hard. If you miss a vein they whack you."

When I was in the critical care unit following my first neurosurgery, the doctors needed a fresh blood sample every day for tests. One morning, a young nurse staggered into my room at the end of her shift. I woke up to the sound of her peeling the sterile paper away from the syringe. I was groggy and it startled me when she jabbed the needle deep into my hand.  ("AAArrrrrgggghh!")  She pulled the stopper back quickly, jerked the needle out, and walked away without a word. My automatic blood pressure cuff inflated shortly thereafter and my blood pressure was so high an alarm went off.

On another morning, a trim young man approached me. He didn't look like the other nurses. All I can say is he looked quite focussed, as if he were on an important secret mission.

"How are you?" he asked softly.

"I'm okay," I replied. "Are you here to draw blood?"


"I hate needles," I said.

"Everyone hates needles."

"I guess so. I never thought of it that way."

"Don't worry. I'm good," he said. He paused, as if considering whether he should say the next sentence, then simply said, "I just got back from Iraq."

"Wow," I said. I didn't know how else to respond, so I added, "God bless you."  (I think that's the correct response.)

He gave me a neutral look, a simple acknowledgement that I had spoken without any clue of what he felt about it. He stood and gathered his things.

"Wait, are we done?" I asked.

"That's it," he said.

I had not felt a thing, not even the tiniest prick. As he turned to leave I wanted to speak to him some more, but I didn't know what to say.  I just asked, "Army?"

He replied softly, "Yes," then opened the door.  My room had been dark, and the hard light from the corridor burst in, turning him at once into a dark outline with a fiery aura.

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