In the past year or two of medical treatment for neuromuscular disease, I’ve learned that it’s possible to get used to any number of things I would’ve previously placed on a spectrum of “I would prefer not to” all the way to “over my dead body.” Getting used to these things has nothing to do with personal strength or intestinal fortitude—it’s simply a matter of my internal give-a-damn meter no longer going up very high in the face of increasingly bizarre requests:
“We’d like to place some electrified needles in your muscles and see what happens.” Um.
“We’d also like to infuse your bloodstream with the plasma of roughly forty thousand other people.” Uh, okay?
“Also, please take this chemo drug every day for the rest of your life.” Fine. Whatever.
Yet there are also those demands that I can’t get used to, despite my best efforts. Namely, I can’t get myself to tolerate simple blood draw without high drama; the moment a phlebotomist comes walking toward me with gloved hands and a needle, I hyperventilate. Then I turn a disconcerting shade of green, sometimes cry a little, then pass out like a fainting goat.
My freak-out-and-pass-out routine was embarrassing enough even back in those healthier days when I only needed blood taken with routine physicals. But now that I and my “bad,” hard-to-find veins need our blood counts monitored once each week, I can’t afford for every trip to the lab to become an hour-long production in which I’m going to fall on the floor, knock my head, cry my eyeliner off, and leave drenched in sweat.
This past summer, after a particularly unpleasant lab incident—one in which I blacked out twice while the phlebotomist probed vein after vein and still couldn’t “find anything”—I asked friends, strangers, and anybody who’d engage me on the subject how they manage to stay conscious and maintain a little personal dignity while being jabbed with needles.
There were the useless suggestions, such as “don’t watch” as foreign objects puncture your tender little arm flab (trust me: not looking doesn’t help), but there were novel ones as well: drink a lot of salty soup to jack up your blood pressure. Suck down a ton of juice. Stay warm—even hot. Get some exercise. Listen to something peppy. Visualize a kitten.
I took everyone’s suggestions, and because I didn’t know which one might actually help, I took them all at once and with singular devotion. I downed a pint and a half of miso and another pint or so of orange juice. I put on my winter mittens and a sweatshirt even though it was 90 degrees outside in mid July. I listened to James Brown encouraging me to turn it loose, or to engage in the separate but related activities of driving my funky soul and getting on the scene. I did some jumping jacks in the parking lot. I imagined cats—several, just to be safe. And when the phlebotomist took my blood, for the first time in years, I neither cried nor fainted. It would be hard to have felt more proud had I just been handed a lifetime achievement award.
So when the lab phoned later to say they’d lost the several vials they’d just taken (though how a facility specializing in the collection of human blood misplaces said blood is beyond me), I was not amused. But at least I had my routine now—it may have been elaborate, but I felt that it was repeatable. James Brown and I would be okay.
I gobbled more miso. I drank more juice. I drove my funky soul back to the lab, then I got on up in the parking lot (to the great interest of the HVAC technicians outside) while wearing my mittens and picturing cats. Inside the lab, I rolled up my sleeves, presented my arms, and let the phlebotomist get to work. 20 minutes later, she was still at work, still harpooning for a vein. When a second phlebotomist came over and began stabbing at my other arm, I couldn’t hold it together—I burst into my usual snotty tears and fainted.
It’s several months and many blood draws later, and I’ve given up on the idea of ever having a smooth, drama-free visit to the lab. I’ve had to make peace with the way the technicians say, “oh, Kelly’s here” when I sign in while wearing my mittens. But I’ve decided that it’s okay, this fainting routine. It’s never going to be pleasant to wake up in a sweaty heap, but it serves as a reminder to me that I am still a part of this body, not a ride-along mind in a meat jalopy.
The things we sick people are willing to do to get well–or simply not get any worse–can sometimes make us feel that our bodies are old junkers we lug around and routinely drag into the shop for tune-ups. They are separate from the real us. They are different. Lesser. Removed from who we are as thinking, emoting people.
Yet it’s me, the person, who’s scared bloodless by those approaching needles. It’s me, the person, who—like it or not—has the emotional reaction that leads to the physical fallout. For once, it’s me, the person, who’s in some way in control. And the fact that my mind and body aren’t ready to part just yet? I’ll take it as good news.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. Her debut poetry collection, Burn This House, was published by Red Hen Press in 2013. Her work has appeared in venues including Best New Poets, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Toast. A long-time Seattleite, she now lives in London, England.