I love the appearance of veins.

It sounds downright strange from someone who despises and frets about having blood drawn.  Medical encounters aside, I am fascinated by the appearance of veins, and have been for years.  My own veins are rather deep and difficult to see.  This observation has been backed by quite a few in the medical field.  So when I do see them, I’m almost charmed by them.

I realized that I could see the veins in my hands whenever I a) lose weight, and/or b) stay very hydrated.  In fact, I use this observation to determine if I should be upping my water intake during the day.  Sure, I want to stay hydrated, but it’s also due in part to my curiosity about my veins.  I often will catch myself very slyly studying the veins on the ton of my hands, how they weave intricate patterns.  When I run my finger over the vein, the skin delicately rises over the vein and falls almost imperceptibly.  When I have my hands wrapped around Joel’s, I like to gently press on the vein that runs between his knuckles.  I enjoy feeling the vein, the vital plasticity of it.

But enough about veins.  Let’s talk about how I routinely piss off my M.D.’s nurses.  On a trip to the health center on campus last semester, I had made an appointment for a flu shot.  I make appointments because I pass out.  No kidding.  I am not like one of you lucky ones who hoists their sleeves up above their bicep and sits patiently in the chair.  I’ve tried.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

It all started with a doctor’s visit when I was 6 years old.  This is my earliest memory of a doctor’s office.  I was in a rectangular room, up on the examination table, my mom seated in front of me, the brown plastic cushion a curious sensation below my butt.  The nurse came in and took my vitals.  Back then, they didn’t have the cool 3-second oral thermometers they do now.  They were still using the awesome, cold, mercury-filled thermometers.  She stuck it under my arm, and I remember looking down at it, the cold glass tucked underneath my freckled arm.  A clammy sensation came over me immediately, and I lost consciousness and fell to the other side.  A thermometer, people.  

I have another memory of that same office, this time taking my first (remembered) blood sample.  Where they took the blood, they had a lab area surrounded by glass and wood paneling, and there was a medium-sized opening in the glass.  It was similar to the slots in the glass at a movie theatre or high-crime area gas station, just a bit bigger.  We walked over to this glass panel, and my mom told me to stick my arm through.  What she did not tell me was that, much like a Saw movie, they were going to hack at my arm.  Well, not exactly.  It was a pinprick in my middle finger, but you would have thought I had to voluntarily stick my hand into a grinder because I was being threatened with disembowelment. 

I, once again, took one look at the emerging drop of blood that the nurse so expertly squeezed from my six-year-old fingertip, watched her put a band-aid over it, and collapsed on the ground.  

And thus began my psychological struggle with medical environments.

In fifth grade, I went to the local mall to shop with my mom.  We stopped at McDonald’s for lunch, and went to sit in the mall food court.  I was very concerned with a loose tooth and was chewing very carefully on the other side of my mouth.  The chewing action was enough to loosen the baby tooth out and I bit down on it, hard.  I tasted blood in my mouth and tried to rinse it out with my kid-size Sprite.  I turned the Happy Meal box to read the side of it to try and distract myself.  It wasn’t working.  I stared off at the fake plant beside me, focusing on the waxy texture and color.  Everything in my world started to swirl and I told my mom I didn’t feel well.  She told me to go to the bathroom, so I got up and started to make my way across the aisle to go to the McDonald’s bathroom.  Thankfully she was walking with me, because I lost control in my knees and passed out.  She caught me in her arms and lowered me down to the floor.  I woke up to the sound of a woman asking if she should go get a paper towel or some orange juice.

In seventh grade, my gym class took a day to watch a video on safety and emergency situations.  The video dealt with the usual safety concerns:  drowning, poisoning, how to administer basic first aid.  For whatever reason, the video also included how to apply a tourniquet in case of fatal bleeding.  They simulated this on-screen.  I remember looking up at the white clock on the cream walls above the basketball hoop, feeling unsteady, and then according to witnesses, I sank onto my friend’s shoulder who sat beside me.  She thought I was goofing off, so she pushed me off her shoulder and I immediately fell backward onto the hard gymnasium floor.  The next thing I knew was that people were leaning over me and a German Shephard’s face was alarmingly close to my own.  The drug dog was at school that day with the police officer, and they contacted him to see if he could help.

My senior year of high school, I began having miserable, painful symptoms of unknown origin.  After a few tests, they discovered it was my gallbladder and I needed to have it removed.  Before I could submit to surgery, I had to have urine and blood tests the week before.  I went to the clinic with my mom – and by this time, you’re thinking, your poor mom, and you would be very much correct – and I was brought into a small cubicle of a room and told to sit down.  I saw the materials out on a tray, and panic-stricken, looked around for a bed.  I insisted that I needed to be lying flat, otherwise I would pass out.  They in turn insisted that I would be fine, just to not look at the needle.  I angrily told the nurses, “NO.  If I do not lay down, I will pass out.”  They said, “Well, if you start to pass out we’ll lay you down.”  I wasn’t going to continue to argue with them, so I sat down and tried to concentrate on other things.  My mom and another nurse were standing in the doorway, trying to distract me.  I had my eyes closed, breathing evenly.  I felt the stretchy tube, the tightening, the nurse flicking my vein.  I felt the tiny pinprick of the needle, bit my bottom lip, already feeling my world swirling.  I told the nurses I didn’t feel well.  The nurses chastised me and insisted that I was fine.  As soon as the stick was over, I slid off the chair and onto the floor.  I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, trying to calm my racing pulse and sweat-drenched body.  When I opened my eyes, I was lying face-to-face with a biohazard box while the nurses clucked disapprovingly from above.

There are dozens and dozens of these similar stories of mine.

Throughout college, I worked exceptionally hard to get over this irrational fear of mine.  I took the time to warn doctors and nurses of my inability to remain upright when faced with any circumstance where they were touching me with something other than hands.

When measuring blood pressure, it soared.
When measuring pulse, it raced.
When they attempted to draw blood samples, they would have tried multiple times and I’d be on the floor or drenched in sweat on their tables.
We won’t even talk about my experiences with IVs.

My sophomore year of college, I was rooming with a student that, to this day, is still one of my best and closest friends.  She was majoring in respiratory therapy and loves working in the medical field.  She also donated blood on a regular basis.  A relative of mine landed in the hospital that year, and required several pints of blood for transfusions.  I felt obligated to pay the medical field back for having that blood available to save someone else’s life, and decided I was going to wrench up the courage to donate blood.  I knew of a blood drive going on that day at my University, and decided that was the day that I would donate.  I worried and suffered and pondered in my room all morning long, dreading the moment that I would donate.  How would I manage to lay still that long?  I marched myself down to the building later that afternoon, butterflies in my stomach and feeling a little sick.  I remember pushing in the elevator button, letting my finger rest on the cool surface and thinking that if I didn’t take my hand off that button, I wouldn’t have to do it.  I took my finger off the button and wandered the halls until I found the room.  I peeked inside and saw a room full of beds, and tried desperately not to look at the contents in the tubes leading away from people’s arms.  I found an empty chair – there were many people waiting – and nervously tapped my heel in time with my heartbeat.  My foot was bouncing quickly.  I stayed for a good five minutes, waiting in line, my heart pounding in my chest, my throat, my head.  I began to feel queasy.  I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to focus on following through.  My ears started to ring.  As quickly as I had come in, I left.  I walked as fast and as far away from that awful room as I possibly could.  You should have seen my roommate’s face when I came into the room without a bandage on my arm.  You should have felt the heaviness in my heart when I walked back into that room and told her I couldn’t do it.

I’m happy to report that today I am able to respectfully request my needs in doctor’s offices – lay me down for shots, don’t worry if you see a high blood pressure reading – it’s normal outside of the office, provide cool towels if I do manage to not feel well.  Please don’t overreact, I just need to lie down and I will feel better shortly.  I have reduced my anxiety over the past few years to almost nothing.  Whereas the majority of my life I would worry myself so much for a month prior to the event that I wouldn’t sleep at night – even if it was something simple as a dental cleaning.  Through repeated exposure and insisting that I have some degree of control over the situation (“please let me lie down”), I have managed to back away from being a panic-stricken, nervous wreck when I’m in for a routine exam or procedure.  It’s been a really long struggle and it’s still ongoing, but it’s improved.  I’m still not able to walk past a blood drive without staring down at the ground and walking quickly by, but at least I don’t faint at the mere thought of it.  Ten years ago, I would not have been able to write this entry without feeling clammy and anxiety-ridden.  Today, I write it to tell you, but I also write it remind myself how far I’ve come.  I want to let you know that if you suffer from medical anxiety, you are very much not alone.  And if you want me to bring a cold towel to your next appointment, just let me know and I’ll come along.  I’ll even hold your hand; just don’t take offense when I look away from needles pricking your veins.

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