Monday, September 26, 2011

Needles and courage

I used to be afraid of needles. Actually I was afraid of something more specific: blood leaving my arm through a needle. I warned all my pediatric nurses that I experienced an inexplicable light-headed reaction seconds after they drew a few milliliters of blood from my arm. I also told them I could handle shots, which was the truth, in case they thought I was a wimpy ass kid they could complain about at lunch time.

"But you seem so calm," they each said, laughing to themselves. Then they drew the blood, sometimes without reclining the chair or putting up my feet, and it was lights out. I typically spent the next 15 to 45 minutes wrapped in a fleece blanket and hung upside down in a dark room while a nurse practitioner held a Capri-Sun to my lips. Then my mom and I walked on eggshells to the family minivan in oppressive heat. Sometimes I stopped halfway to lower my head and burned my palms on the hot blacktop pavement. I returned home dazed, punctured and burned. At least that is how I remember those episodes. I could have made a dozen bucks each time if the law allowed for petty pediatric malpractice. But I wouldn't have if it did. As bad as I felt for myself, I felt almost as bad for the nurses.

My mom told me I inherited my fear from her. I cannot remember seeing my mom have any similar problems, but I doubt I was with her when she might have had them. I told her that I was not afraid and that what happened to me was a knee-jerk reaction. But she insisted I was afraid.

Decades later, or admittedly a few years later, my mom tackled chemotherapy and multiple bone marrow biopsies, accomplishments that I am embarrassed to write in only one independent clause. But that was sort of how she did it: quickly and with grace. She asked a lot of questions and requested plenty of drugs that might have lessened the pain, but I don't remember any complaints. And the drugs did not lessen the accomplishment because fear is always justified.

"I love my doctors," she would say after she was alert enough to lift her head off my shoulder. "I couldn't feel a thing." My high school teammates who used to brag about trying to drink a gallon of milk in one hour would have described my mom with a word: gritty.

My mom received dozens of blood transfusions before her stem cell transplant last October, so my fiancee and I met at the Dean Dome one summer evening to donate at the UNC blood drive. I was less afraid than I was years before only because my mom seemed to handle things a hundred times worse with ease. I should have been more worried for myself.

I shook like a leaf and sweated like a pig for an uncomfortable hour-long donation. My body temperature seemed to rise, fall, and rise again in mere minutes. The pain of the needle was only slight as always, but my body still winced at the drawing of blood. The nurses explained that I neither drank enough water nor ate enough food. I explained I was just a wimpy ass kid. I continued to shake in the canteen afterward, but I was happy. I could not wait to tell my mom what we did. She was surprised and concerned for my health. The sick caring for the healthy must be nearly exclusively human, and it showed me, like many other things did that long summer, that my mom was still my mom.

Needless to say, the American Red Cross was not eager to have me back and neglected to call me for a year. But late last June, a bit more than a year after I watched donated blood from anonymous strangers keep my mom going on her way to her transplant, they called me to ask whether I would donate again.

If only you knew I used to hang like a bat in pediatric storage closets, I thought to myself. "Sure."

And so I drove to Durham on July 6 to donate again. I drank so much water that I had to stop at a gas station on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard to take the longest pee of my life. I ate so much food that, well, you can imagine. I farted razorblades.

It was worth it. My donation lasted eight minutes, and I did not feel anything but a brief needle prick. I contained my stupid pride in the canteen while I flipped through the future appointments book and made small talk with other bandaged North Carolinians. They gave me a free T-shirt as a trophy. I called my mom.

Today I returned for my third donation and quickly learned that a nurse in training would administer for me. I knew I had to give more this time. I told her I preferred to use my left arm, but she quietly asked me if she could use the big vein in my right instead. I consented. She asked a billion questions of her supervisors and told me she was nervous. She tightened my arm band, loosened it, tightened it, took it completely off and put it on again. She taped a plastic tube to my wrist and told me I was hairy. She poked a slow poke. She and her colleagues decided to forgo the needle guard for reasons I was unwilling to see. I must have grimaced.

"Are you OK, sir?" she asked as much for the nurses breathing down her neck as for me.

"I'm fine," I said as convincingly as possible. She was a momentary model of my mother. Deliberate, nervous, poised, transparent. Steadfast. I called my mom.

"I donated blood again," I said.

"What?" she blurted. "Are you OK? Are you driving? I would have come to get you."

"I'm fine, Mom," I said.

"Next time I'm going with you," she said.

I thought that was a great idea.

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