Sunday, February 12, 2012

Needles:Nasty but Necessary

When I woke up, disoriented and drenched in clammy, cold sweat, the medical staff surrounding the gurney on which I was sprawled were all talking very rapidly in a language I didn't understand. Concerned looks on their faces left me wondering exactly what happened and what was next.

It was 1973. The place was post-hippie Athens, Greece. My two traveling friends and I were short of money and, having heard through the vagabond network of a solution, we volunteered to sell our healthy, North American blood for the princely sum of $30. I had been in a hurry to be done with the needle in the vulnerable venous inside of my elbow, By squeezing my hand rapidly, making a fist and then relaxing, I quickly attempted to pump the blood into the bag that hung out of sight on the side of my gurney. I might've reconsidered my impatient strategy, if I had realized how big the bag was. We had assumed it was $30 per pint (450 mL), the amounts usually taken in blood donations in Canada. We were wrong. As the blood squirted out of my arm and into the bag, it synchronously drained out of my face leaving a pasty and colorless cadaver look behind. When my eyes rolled back up into my head, someone must have noticed. I guess I had given enough blood for one day. 
The last several weeks have presented a number of opportunities to face my trypanaphobia (fear of hypodermic needles). 
First, I have only very recently realized that there is a vast array of vaccinations that are necessary for me to leave May 1 on my trip around the world. Hepatitis A, hepatitis B, yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, Japanese encephalitis, cholera, meningococcal disease and typhoid have now, after three visits with the travel doctor, become part of my physical makeup. With four shots per appointment, each has taken its turn piercing my shoulder with the benefit of their own disposable syringe. Why the shoulder I asked?" You would prefer it over the alternative, gluteal maximus, for several reasons, including a lack of major nerves or blood vessels. Not to mention that you don't sit down on your shoulder." 
Second, and almost diametrically opposed in purpose and pattern, was my last session as a participant in a Parkinson's disease study being carried on at the University of British Columbia Hospital. I will not go into the details, having posted on this before, but this particular appointment involved two 90 minute PET scan sessions, with a twist. This time, in addition to having radioactive dye and medication introduced intravenously through my left arm and into my brain, blood was being extracted every 10 to 15 minutes from the radial artery in my right wrist. This required the rather disconcerting appearance of a syringe sticking perpendicular from my wrist for the duration. Despite what you may think, this did not hurt, nor even make me feel faint. But it was a learning experience. You see, normally blood is extracted from a vein, which is much easier than from arteries, which are deeper and harder to find. Arteries also seem to resist the idea of having sharp objects being inserted into them as much as I do. However, we both cooperated in the name of science and improving the lot of those of us with Parkinson's disease. 
Nasty though some things are, they are necessary. We avoid pain wherever possible. Most in our society, me included, go to great lengths to escape even the tiny prick of a needle, whether to extract life-giving blood or introduce disease killing medicine. We fail to acknowledge the purpose of pain. It seems to me that to experience pain, even at the end of a pointy needle, is to recognize our humanity, something we all share. Without it we would not be born. Without it we would learn very little. Without it we would eliminate sacrifice and the benefit that others came from it. Without it we would ultimately expire as shallow people
“Pain and death are part of life. To reject them is to reject life itself.”  Havelock Ellis

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