I can’t stand the sight of blood. I’m not too wild about vomit or feces, either, but I’ve manage to evade both by steering clear of retirement homes and small children. So, when it came time to train as a phlebotomist, I surprised everyone. Including myself.
I was enrolled in a graduate program for Mortuary Science when it came time to write my thesis. I pleaded with my advisor to let me wash her car instead, but it was inevitable I’d be spending the next 2 years pulling long nights in the library. I managed to escape it for a while by failing to come up with a suitable subject. Then, she gave me one.
“How about studying involuntary sphincter control at high altitude?” she asked. Sounded good to me. Master’s and PhD theses always reflect some sort of scientific gobble-de-gook with unpronounceable titles, but ultimately, I ended up writing the great American novel, “The Effects of Projectile Diarrhea and Urinary Incontinence During Pole Vaulting in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics.”
Part of conducting the research was going to involve drawing blood from test subjects, so my advisor arranged for me to train three days a week at the Student Health Center located on the edge of campus.
I showed up the first morning anticipating a week of lectures on venipuncture and practicing on fruit or other inanimate objects. Instead, I went right to work on live human beings – voluntary and otherwise.
The laboratory director was a giant of a man, but one of the gentlest, comforting souls I’ve ever met – important when it comes to involuntarily extracting blood from anxious students waiting to learn what disease they’d contracted this week. He handed me a white lab coat and motioned me over to the chair where I’d be drawing the patients’ blood.
George stood at the door of the waiting area and asked, “Who’s next?” The students looked at each other until finally, a young freshman girl stood up like a deer caught in the headlights, her eyes as big as saucers. “I need to tell you that I’m deathly afraid of needles,” she whined. “That’s OK,” I said. “So am I.”
After George seated the girl, he showed me how to apply a rubber tourniquet around her arm and asked her to squeeze his thigh. “Sometimes the patient’s vein is hard to find,” he said. “So it helps to slap the inside of their elbow or flick it a few times with your middle finger.” I told him I knew all about that, as both my parents were heroin addicts. Just trying to liven the mood a bit.
“After you swab the surface of the skin with alcohol,” he said, “Line up the needle on the vacutainer with the vein and jam it through the skin.” Voila. The blood starting filling the test tube. “Isn’t that easy?” he asked. I had to admit it was. So, after I got up off the floor and the blood returned to my head, George asked me, “Are you ready for your first one?”
Because of limited space in the Student Health Center, the waiting room was literally right around the corner from the patient’s chair. For better or worse, students heard everything going on at the blood drawing station.
The next patient was a hulking, seven-foot defensive lineman on the football team. At over 300 pounds, he barely managed to squeeze into the chair. I missed his vein several times, but George said it was OK. Just imagine you’re practicing on a grapefruit. After the fifth attempt, he started howling expletives at the top of his lungs. “F**ck, sh*t, Jesus Christ, you mother f**cker! Holy sh*t. God damned you, you c**k sucking son of a bitch!!! You’re KILLING me. Take the needle out!!!!!” I looked at George and he gently brushed me aside and told me to go home and practice on myself until I improved my accuracy .
The next day, my first patient was an overweight, middle-aged woman, in for a glucose tolerance test. Glucose tolerance tests require four instead of one venipuncture; once an hour, for the entire morning. I ushered the lady to the station, where she asked, “Is it alright if I lay down while you draw my blood?” The Health Center didn’t have room for a cot or bed, so I had to lay her on the floor while I leaned over her, my knee on her chest to keep her from getting away.
The instant I punctured her skin, she let out a howl that sounded like a cross between an orgasm and having her left leg gnawed off by wolverines. “Owwwweeeeeooohhhhaaaaaa! Whoooo whooo whooo. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
I thought she was being overly dramatic. After all, I’ve had blood drawn from the side of my neck lots of times.
After helping her back into the chair, I released the tourniquet and said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Just keep that ice bag on your neck the rest of the day. The swelling should go down after a couple of weeks. I’ll see you back here in an hour.”
Believe it or not, she never returned for her follow-up appointments. George did, however, receive a nice email from her the next day. “Dear George. I won’t be returning for the rest of my glucose tolerance tests. After 30 years, my diabetes has miraculously disappeared! Good luck and tell your assistant to keep practicing!”
By the end of the semester, George felt that I was seasoned enough to return to my lab and start drawing blood from test subjects. That, and he was concerned about the negative publicity the Student Health Center received during my tenure there.
As it turned out, taking blood from sickly students at the Health Center was much easier than my pole vaulting subjects. Due to the design of my hypothesis, it was imperative that I get a 10-cc blood sample the moment they cleared the bar, 17 feet above the ground. To do so entailed straddling the bar with my phlebotomy kit in my lap. The minute the subject dove over the bar, I had to quickly apply a tourniquet, swab their arm with alcohol and jab the needle into their arm; all before they fell to the ground. Fortunately, I had practiced extensively on my cat, so it wasn’t anything new.
While I’ve haven’t used my phlebotomy skills since I left graduate school, the experience made me appreciate the value of invading another human’s body. Had I known it was going to leave such a damaging impression on my patients, I would have chosen something less invasive – like inserting Foley catheters.