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How I Overcame My Fear of Needles

Posted: 01/24/2013 8:16 am

"Does this scare you?"

The therapist pointed a needle in the air like a pistol. I clawed my nails into my chair and tried not to hyperventilate.

People are often surprised by my phobia of blood and needles. Working as a community health promoter in a public health unit, I doled out clean needles to drug users and talked to clients about injection site rotation. In the three years I worked there, I probably had more daily interaction with syringes than the average person, sometimes taking in 500 used needles a day. But the truth is, at 32, having my blood drawn scares me.

So where did this phobia come from? When I was nine, I had a bad experience while in the hospital with scarlet fever. A nurse restrained me and abruptly poked a needle into my arm, inflicting a pain that felt worse than a bee sting.

I avoided having blood taken for the next 20 years, even if it meant risking my health. Lab requisitions landed in the recycling bin. The mere suggestion of a blood draw made me recoil like a vampire facing a crucifix. Whenever Canadian Blood Services ran a mobile blood-donor clinic in my office building, I would walk faster through the lobby.

Then one day, my 70-year-old grandmother was hit by a car while crossing the street and barely survived. When I got the call, I rushed from my university dorm to the hospital intensive care unit where family members had gathered. A nurse in green scrubs appeared. "She's alive, but needs a transfusion," she said.

Family members of all ages immediately volunteered to donate blood, ready to roll up their sleeves for Grandma. All except one -- me. I stayed silent and flipped through a magazine. In that horrible moment, I realized how debilitating my fear was.

It took me several more years to do something about it. A few months before I turned 30, my doctor ordered blood tests at my annual physical exam. I panicked and confessed my fear. She put aside the lab requisition and gently suggested that I see a psychiatrist.

"Dr. M helped my other patient with the same fear," she assured me.

When Dr. M called to set up an appointment, I hesitated. Talking about personal problems to medically licensed strangers was taboo in my family. "A psychiatrist?" my mother had said. "They'll just put you on drugs. Can't you get over this yourself?"

I almost listened. But I scribbled down the directions to his office and entered the appointment in my calendar.

I had my doubts from the start. In his black leather throne, Dr. M looked more like a preacher than a physician. I envisioned him towering over the pulpit, clutching a prayer book and condemning sin. Except the Bible would be the DSM-IV.

"Phobias are pretty easy to treat," he said. "But only if the patient is willing to leave their comfort zone."

I wasn't convinced and remained hostile to help. But despite my skepticism, I was out of options.

We started with basic exposure therapy. I watched YouTube clips of blood draws for a least an hour every day. During therapy sessions, Dr. M encouraged me to watch as he rested the tip of the needle on my skin.

As I started to feel more at ease with needles, Dr. M suggested doing actual venipuncture -- drawing blood. He rolled his chair next to mine and started wrapping a tourniquet around my bicep.

As he gently pressed the needle into my flesh, I felt woozy and overcome by an instinct to bail. Where were those drugs my mother had warned about? I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, assuring myself that I was safe. After a few minutes, I glanced at the needle. It wasn't so bad. I didn't pass out or throw up. After two sessions, my heart stopped racing every time a needle entered my vein.

"You're doing well," Dr. M said.

Unfortunately, doing well in treatment means you've been bumped up to the next level. And the next step was to get a blood draw in a lab. I gave a million reasons why I couldn't go. Dr. M listened and nodded sympathetically, but he still challenged me to go before our next session.

"You're ready," he said. "You can do it."

I spent the weekend mulling and obsessing. My inner voice urged me to quit therapy and forget the whole ordeal. Living in fear sucked, but the known seemed safer and cozier. Then I thought about people who routinely get blood work or undergo painful medical treatments. If they could do it, why couldn't I?

An idea struck me -- I would ask family and friends to sponsor me. In exchange for their donations, I promised to go for the blood draw by the end of the week.

My mouth was dry and stomach queasy when I staggered into the lab on Thursday. I put on my headphones, took a deep breath and braced myself for the needle. I felt a quick pinch.

The procedure lasted less than three minutes, but left me feeling exhilarated. I had confronted my fear and raised more than $200 for charity.

I still find it unpleasant getting blood drawn, but thanks to several months of therapy I'm less scared. I hate to admit it, but Dr. M was right -- phobias can be treated. Sometimes, we have to walk toward what scares us. And this can lead to freedom in the end, if we're willing to take the journey.

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  • Where Does It Come From?

    The virus is spread through an infected person's feces or vomit, and often by unwashed hands. "It's not that it's in food, but more often than not, it's in the environment," says Dr. Gerald Evans, a professor of medicine, biomedical and molecular sciences at Queen's University, and the medical director for infection prevention and control at Kingston General Hospital. "You don't want to know how much stuff from people's intestinal tracts is all over the environment."

  • Where Can You Get It?

    The most common places for norovirus to spread are residences where many people are living together — nursing homes, for example, or cruise ships.

  • What Are The Symptoms?

    The clinical syndrome is characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, though for some, it can also include a fever and abdominal pain. It comes on very suddenly — usually within 10 hours of transmission — and lasts one to three days. After three days, it's no longer contagious.

  • Who's At Risk?

    Anyone can get norovirus, but it can be a particularly bad illness for the very young, and the very old. "Healthy people who get it feel awful, but they recover quickly," says Dr. Evans. "The problem is when it combines with other ailments. For very old people who might have other health problems, it can have serious effects, while very young people can dehydrate much more quickly." Interestingly, the virus particularly likes people with the blood group O, which constitutes about 45 per cent of the population. This is thanks to the receptor the virus attaches itself to. If you have another blood type, you can still get norovirus, but the disease will likely not be as severe.

  • What Can You Do If You Contract Norovirus?

    "Lay low and wait for yourself to get better," advises Dr. Evans. There's no treatment, and while medical professionals advise keeping fluids up, Dr. Evans acknowledges this can be difficult, given the nature of the illness. "We want people to try to hydrate themselves as best they can, but it can hard," he says. "Because it's usually just one day, the situation doesn't get too dire, but every so often, we see perfectly healthy adults coming into the emergency room for intravenous fluids to get hydrated again."

  • What Can People Do To Protect Themselves?

    You'll want to practice good hygiene in order to reduce the possibility that you'll ingest the virus, recommends Dr. Evans, and of course, try to avoid being in a circumstance where you can get the virus. "We really encourage handwashing, but I won't tell you will absolutely not get sick if you wash your hands," he says. "Viruses are tiny little particles, and it doesn't always matter how fastidious you are at cleaning things — they get everywhere."

  • Why Is It Such A Concern?

    The biggest problem, notes Dr. Evans, is that the virus is very transmissible, and can easily pass from person to person. It's also quite the trial on your health. "It's very traumatic," says Dr. Evans. "It's amazing how fast it starts, and it's amazing how bad you feel for at least a day or two. Most people who get it would rather have anything else."

  • What Is The Difference Between Norovirus And The Flu?

    The flu is an entirely different illness than norovirus. As Dr. Evans explains, the flu takes place in the respiratory system, while norovirus is a gastroenterological illness. Besides the lack of cough and cold in norovirus, it also has a much short lifespan: Three days vs. the flu's five to seven-day stint.

  • What Is The Difference Between Norovirus And Norwalk?

    Norwalk is an old term for norovirus, says Dr. Evans. "Viruses are always named geographically, and the first norovirus was discovered in Norwalk, Ohio, so it was given that name. It's been since changed to give the group of viruses the name 'norovirus.'"

  • Are There Any Long-Term Effects?

    "As far as we know, there are no long-term effects — it's a very self-limited illness," says Dr. Evans. "The biggest, scariest thing about noro is that you're never immune to it, because there are a bunch of different strains. Once you get it, you can pretty well guarantee you will get it again."

 

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