, Salem, MA

October 1, 2012

Column: In support of blood testing with a smile

By Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — Perhaps I wasn’t the best candidate to take my daughter for her first-time blood test that was part of her annual physical. She passed out cold in the chair. Later I escorted her out of the hospital, pale, sweaty and shaky (and that’s me I’m talking about).

My history concerning blood and needles is far from heroic. When I was in my twenties, close to my daughter’s age, I had a summer job working for the U.S. Department of Labor where I was given responsibility for the office blood drive. Recruiting others to give blood while I remained on the sidelines giving out the doughnuts and OJ seemed downright hypocritical; but never having given blood before — or even had a blood test

— I was severely blood phobic. Not wanting to risk fainting in front of my coworkers, I took the squirrelly way out: losing enough weight to put me under the weight requirement. This way I could honestly say I didn’t qualify.

Somehow I managed to avoid any close encounter with a needle until I was in my thirties and about to give birth to my daughter. At this point, there was no escaping an intravenous line at the hospital. I asked the obstetrician if he would consider inserting a hep lock in my arm prior to the big event so I could “practice.” He dismissed the idea as ridiculous. “When you’re in labor, an IV is the least of your worries!” he actually yelled at me as I blinked back tears.

He was right, but even three days of labor with an IV didn’t cure my squeamishness. Generally when I go for blood work I warn phlebotomists that I’m a big chicken so they’ll assign me the most experienced member of their team. With a pro drawing my blood, there’s no time for my ears to start ringing and the room to start spinning. I’m in and out without even feeling a pinch.

Another thing that’s helpful is a colorful smiley face poster that hangs at the Gemini Lab where I go. The poster features rows of yellow smiley faces depicting different emotions. As I make a fist and squeeze the rubber ball, I intently scrutinize each silly yellow face.

But there were no such distractions at the hospital lab where I took my daughter. Coincidentally a man in the waiting room there said he usually goes to the Gemini Lab and mentioned that the smiley face poster “gets him through” as well. He advised my daughter to find a distraction. “Whatever you do, don’t look at the needle,” he told her as she made her way to the curtained-off exam room.

My daughter says she heeded the man’s warning and focused her attention out the window. She valiantly stuck out her arm for a tech who explained he was “in training” and asked if he could draw her blood. (I would have sprinted from the room.) She did great for more than a vial and a half, but then her vision went fuzzy and she was “out.” At the sound of an alarm going off, I knew instantly what had happened. Call it mother’s intuition.

Later I wondered if perhaps hanging smiley face posters in blood labs across America might make the process just a bit friendlier. A touch of humanity and a pinch of compassion surrounding the issue would certainly make first-timers and those who are blood phobic like me more comfortable — and might even encourage a new generation of blood donors to roll up their sleeves.

Mary Alice Cookson is a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments at