Consider Phlebotomy

Every year or so my doctor sends me to have a blood test. This is precautionary – I hope – just to see if the cholesterol has made any progress in furring up my arteries or if the GPI is in danger of becoming critical. For many years I resisted having blood tests which is how the cholesterol was able to make such solid progress in the first place. Like so many things it was not so much the pain as its anticipation. Often, however, because the blood tended to be taken by doctors, who may not get much practice, it did hurt rather a lot.

Then, three or four years ago there was a period when I needed to have my blood taken frequently. There was one test, to see if I was diabetic, when I had to drink a special liquid and then have my blood extracted three times in two hours. My doctor sent me for these tests to the phlebotomy clinic at University College Hospital.

Not all the out-patient facilities at UCH are beyond reproach. Once I had a weird man who practised on me with his ultrasound machine. He shook his head and told me that I was in imminent danger of dying through three separate morbid conditions. This turned out to be a fantasy on his part and I believe that there was rather a row. I was sent to see a consultant who specialised in the three morbid conditions in question. He was remarkably tweeded and he was inclined to blame me that his time had been wasted. He told me that I was not after all in danger of imminent death.

But, he turned on me, how much do you drink?

Three units a day, average, I replied smartly. That’s OK, isn’t it?

He growled.

Certainly not. They’ve changed the units.

Anyway, I introduce the creepy ultrasound man only to point a contrast with the blood ladies. They all worked together in one big room. Most of them were sensible middle-aged women of the sort that inspire perfect confidence. As they went about their work they called to each other across the room, a constant stream of jokes and gossip. It was like being in an opera. And because they did nothing else all day except take blood they didn’t hurt at all. Sometimes I would look firmly the other way so as not to see the needle going in and before I knew it it was all over and I hadn’t felt a thing. I almost got to enjoy it.

I put it in the past tense because they have moved the phlebotomy clinic. It’s in a different building now and there isn’t the same big room but it’s the same people.

So when my doctor reminded me that it was time for my annual blood test and gave me the necessary form I was quite pleased. There is after all nothing quite as satisfactory as a fear overcome. Better than working, I thought.

I took my number, just like at the butcher’s, and waited to be called. The women wandered in and out of the waiting area. They had grim faces; I wondered why.

When it got to 90, a young man summoned me and led me into a small room, where one of the women whom I had met on previous occasions was sitting. With the air of someone who is only doing her duty, she addressed me.

This is a student, she said. You do not have to have your blood taken by the student and can decline if you wish.

This was a scene from my worst nightmare. All the confidence that I had built up over the years vanished, just like that.

Of course, I said. Go ahead.

I am an Englishman.

Gingerly he tied on the tourniquet. It flapped ineffectively on my upper arm.

It’s not very tight, I said.

Um, he said, and dabbed at it.

He and the women inspected my arm.

Can you see a vein? she said didactically.


That one?

Is too small.

They contemplated my arm in silence for a moment.

That one then, she said, with a gesture.

I’ll try.

That was the worst bit. From the corner of my eye I saw the young man select a syringe from his box of tricks, inspect it briefly as if he’d never seen one before, and then I looked right away and he plunged it in.

In have to admit that I benefited from beginner’s luck. He achieved pay dirt on the first jab.

Now, said the woman, what do we do?

We take blood and put in three different coloured phials.

Very good.

It took a very long time and I didn’t look. There was a clock on the wall the face of which read, ‘Don’t Panic’ and I inspected that instead.

Good, she said, that’s two. Which is the last one?


Yes. Very good. And where is the blue one?

Don’t know.

It’s where I told you before.

Um, said the student.

There were scrabbling sounds, and presumably the blue phial was located because finally the needle was removed.

Did that hurt? the student asked.

Surprisingly not, I said. You have the makings of a great phlebotomist. You have a lot to live up to, mind, with the women of the UCH phlebotomy unit.

He beamed, suddenly, with pleasure.

Thank you, thank you, he said. It is a wonderful day!

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