I huddle under the doctor’s knee-hole desk, a six year old cornered by the nurse who comes at me with a hypodermic needle. I have run from that big, thick metal spear through examination rooms and the hallway, and now I’ve reached a dead end. The structure I hide under is dark, brown, ugly. After a moment’s reprieve, the white-garbed nurse grabs my arm and jabs me. I cry, and it’s all over.
I think of this scene as I lie in the hospital receiving a blood transfusion. This one didn’t require a needle because, since being diagnosed with cancer over a year ago, I have a medi-port in my chest. It was accessed with a sharp, thin, single-use needle two days ago in the emergency room. But that’s not true for the people who donated these two units of blood. They stuck out their arms and accepted a needle in their veins, not for themselves but for me and others they will never know. I smile at the thought. Thank you, whoever you are.
My father was a regular blood donor, contributing multiple gallons over his lifetime. If I had ever asked him why he donated to the Red Cross so often—every eight weeks, I believe—he probably would have said something like, “It’s my civic duty” or “I can, so I should.” My husband, some cousins, and I began giving when my brother-in-law was ill and needed blood, but none of us gave as consistently or for as long as Dad. Reluctantly, I imagine him lying on the white-covered table, one arm at his side, the other with a needle in the vein, a red-filled tube dripping life-saving fluid into the collection bag. But, needle-phobic as I am, I’d rather just admire the numbers, much as I admired the man: two pint units in a quart, four quarts in a gallon, making eight units in one gallon. Somehow eight gallons comes to mind. That would be sixty-four units he donated—and that’s surely not a final count. The point is that he helped dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of people whom he didn’t know because it was the right thing to do. That was my dad.
I think about him as a stranger’s blood drips into me. I’d like Dad’s arms around me. I’d like him to shield me from my disease. But he’s been gone over a decade and can no more protect me than the pediatrician’s desk could all those years ago.
So here I am, without Dad and his sheltering arms. I face my illness head on but am less courageous about needles. As an adult I’d be embarrassed to run from them. Until recently, no matter how I tried to relax, I could feel my muscles tense as the silver point went in. When Julian and I went together for shots for a foreign trip, he claimed not to feel them, yet my arm ached for several days afterwards.
I can’t begin to count the times I’ve been poked since being diagnosed. Only a registered nurse can access my port, so blood draws at the local center are done through my one good vein. I may wince a little, grimace a bit, but I don’t try to escape the phlebotomist. Neither do I run from the nurse who sticks a needle in my port. Much as I want to flee, I merely look away.
And often, as I stare at the wall or into space, I picture myself hiding behind my pediatrician’s knee-hole desk with, dare I admit it, longing.