Friday, November 30, 2007

failed phlebotomy

so I turn up to the appointment in the town hall, remember to lie about my age, read the booklet, fill in the forms, talk to the nice reception nurses, and take my place amongst the half-dozen others waiting their turn. I really don't know why I've left it so late. even now, I'm nervous. of what? pain? hardly. humiliation? possibly. so what if I faint? it must happen all the time. I've persuaded Kim to come along as moral support. it's her first time, too. she doesn't seem remotely concerned.

after a short while, my name is called and I go behind a screen with one of the nurses - taking in, en route, the slightly mediaeval sight, spread out in full view in the body of the hall, of the eight or nine high metal bed-gurney-things and their associated clinical equipment, each with a prone person on top with a tube coming out of their arm and a nurse in blue at their side. I think this is what the emergency field hospital would look like if Glastonbury were struck by an earthquake. except everyone here looks very jolly.

my jolly nurse goes through the form with me (remember your birthday remember your birthday), skipping through my yes/no answers on the form. I resist the temptation to embellish my replies with silly comments. have you ever had sex with another man? it crosses my mind that it must be quite challenging to a few of the worthy burgers who pass through these doors to have to answer that question put by a jolly plump nurse. but a simple, unmodified 'yes' will, apparently, be enough to exclude you from donating. forever. only total normals need apply here.

tough call.

we share a jolly joke about how if I'd left it a year later I wouldn't be able to donate at all, but that now I'm registered I can carry on until I'm seventy!


she assembles a few bits and pieces on the mini-laboratory-like tray on the trolley that manage to look both cheery and scary at the same time (everything that isn't stainless steel is either blue or white plastic with nary a drop of vermilion in sight) and explains that first she'll take a prick-test to check for haemoglobin levels. anaemics need not apply. she asks me to extend the middle finger of my right hand. so specific. I actually have to think about it. it's the minutest of pricks, although I don't enjoy watching her squeeze a good glob to draw the sample into a pipette. she apologises for getting blood everywhere - we share a joke about how I'm making up for lost time - and puts a plaster around the pricked finger. she deposits the glob into a bottle of green liquid (green for boys, blue for girls) where it very slowly starts to settle towards the bottom - evidently one's eligibilty to donate depends on the rate of descent, which is governed by an electronic timer. slowly it falls. I find myself suddenly anxious that it's not going to be alright. it's OK. I pass.

I return to the back of the hall, and barely have time to conspiratorially compare answers with Kim (how do you know with certainty that you've never had sex with someone who might once have injected, or themselves had unsafe sex with someone who might have had sex with someone else who had HIV/AIDS?) than my name is called again and I'm invited to come through and lie down on my allotted gurney. it's right in the middle of the hall. I was hoping for one less conspicuous, out at the edge. it's at this point that I realise I've drawn the short straw as regards the distribution of jolly nurse-attendants - the person into whose care the drawing of my lifeblood over the next few minutes has been handed seems to have been recruited from the agency that specialises in hatchet-faced stuff-the-small-talk nursing auxiliaries. she refuses to smile. OK, I think, all coolio, she's having a bad life day, let's just do this thing.

a rotund and ruddy white-shirted fellow with a clipboard and reading-glasses perched on the tip of his nose wheezes over and asks me for my name and address in the tone of someone checking a box of frozen fish fingers against a list of suspect consignments. only when he asks when last I donated and I confess that this is my first time does his manner shift slightly - in the form of the minutest of glances between him and hatchet-face that I fail to interpret. he asks me to expose the inside of my left elbow and wraps a blood-pressure velcro bandage around my upper arm, then asks me to clench my fist, locates a vein, swabs it - quite thoroughly - warns me that he's about to insert the needle with that pathetic lie that all medical people and dentists use - 'just a slight scratch' - and inserts it. actually, I hardly feel it. then he fusses around a bit (I've averted my eyes by now - I suppose he's adjusting the gate and the tubing), asks me to continue pumping my fist throughout the donation, tells me that it will take around ten minutes, and leaves me under the watchful eye of little Miss Taciturn.

so I lie there, pumping my fist once a heartbeat, just like everyone else around me, and, trying not to dwell on the fact of my precious blood slowly dripping through those tubes into a hi-tech packet discreetly concealed below the gurney, allow my mind to drift beyond the rather spectacular chandeliers and tasteful green panelling of our refurbished town hall, beyond the slight embarassment at the fact that the nurse sitting over there at the edge of the hall not doing anything in particular can see that my heels are evidence of the need for the next five-yearly trip to Clarks, to a general kind of non-specific internal musing on the nature of altruism and the warm and glowy feeling that accrues therefrom.

pump, pump, pump, pump.

the first indication that something might be wrong comes from the slight shift in attention from my diligent but uncaring attendant: she is scrutinising the process of my 'donation' with a look of unconcealed disdain, as if I'd just farted.

"Could you squeeze a bit harder?"

I do so.

"And a bit faster?"

I do so.

"Is there something wrong?"

"It seems to have stopped."


"Your donation - it's stopped."

"What? You mean ...?"

"One moment. Frank!"

she tries to catch Rotund Fellow's eye. he eventually comes over, checks the tubes, readjusts the needle, and asks me to keep pumping.

I do so.

a few minutes later, the same thing - "It's stopped again"

it takes a while for Rotund Fellow to be found. by the time he returns again, I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a lemon, lying here, pumping away, trying my damndest to bleed, and thinking why oh why does this have to happen to me?

there's more fiddling with tubes, more adjusting of needles, a re-adjustment of the angle of my elbow - and then, oh fuck, in the middle of all this, I start to feel a bit funny.

"Do you feel alright?"

Rotund Fellow speaks. fractionally more caring than Hatchet Face. not much.

"I'm fine."

actually, I'm beginning to feel really funny, but I'm buggered if I'm going to let him know.

"You sure?"

"Well, maybe a bit light-headed."

and at this point, I actually feel myself beginning to turn grey, as the blood, quite literally, drains from my head. to his credit, Rotund Fellow's ruddy face registers my ruddiless one and stops fiddling immediately, withdraws the needle, applies a pressure-pad, and nods at the nurse who I'd noticed sitting over there apparently doing nothing.

now we discover what she was waiting for.

a well-oiled machine engages: Rotund Fellow continues to apply pressure to my elbow as she who henceforth shall be know as Fainting Nurse lowers the head of the gurney so my head is level with my body and raises my lower legs onto the sort of large squidgy play-block that they have in kids nurseries - the only red thing in the room, I notice in passing. I continue fatuously protesting my imminent alrightness - as if I were about to fool these highly trained professionals - and surrender to the totality of the moment, this squirmingly public exposure of my own wussiness, complete with meticulously applied cold compress on fevered brow and diligent wafting of face with a piece of cardboard. oh the shame of it. da-da-de-da-da. memories of playground taunting envelop me. well, actually, the calm reassurance of Fainting Nurse that it happens a lot 'with first-timers', and that I'll be fine in a few minutes, envelops me, as she brings me several glasses of water to drink and discourages me from rising too soon.

so that, bar the final slice of cake and a nice cup of tea, is that. they can't even use the pathetic cupful I did manage to donate, because the hi-tech collection bags they use have to contain a specific amount in order for it all to be processed properly.

whilst I'm lying there, waiting for permission to get up, Mistress Whoareyousmilingat asks me what I've eaten and drunk today, and takes some satisfaction in pointing out that this - clearly - pathetically small amount of food (quite normal for me) 'probably' accounts for my bleeding incompetence, and that it might be better, next time, to try eating 'a proper meal' before I donate. so it's all my fault. in retrospect, I think she's wrong about that. I suspect she was blustering around to divert me from Rotund Fellow's incompetent placement of the collection needle, but that's neither here nor there.

what's interesting is the near-fainting. fact is, I'm ok with blood and pain (others as well as mine) under the conditions in which they usually occur. what seems to be the case (because, although I've never tried to give blood before, it has happened before that I've come close to fainting during routine blood-testing) is that, in some people, myself included, alas, the knowledge that one's blood - this lifey-stuff - is being removed from where it properly belongs, and that one can't, or rather, mustn't instigate the usual steps to staunch it, seems to trip an emergency fuse that overrides the conscious decision not to intervene in the blood-letting and compels one - by dint of withdrawing the blood supply to the brain, thus rendering one imminently unconscious and bereft of verticality - to lie down and reconsider that consent. there's no clear way around this other than to try again (in three months time, when the haemoglobin levels have had a chance to fully return), maybe having a heartier breakfast beforehand, and hoping, next time around, for a more amenable team than the cheerless Messrs Hatchet & Frank.

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