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Small Fears and Big Deals

May 17, 2011 at 9:50 am

By Dr. Duff Howell, 277-time blood donor and counting

One of my finer enduring gifts was a conversation about donating blood that I had 15 or 20 years ago. I’d said, “I never look when they put the needle in. I’ve always hated needles, freaks me out, can’t watch, better to look away.” My buddy Dane had replied, “Oh no, I always look – you have to look right at the needle and watch. Trust me, really it’s better.”

I’d had typical kid misgivings about shots, and my first blood donation, back in the mid-80s, had happened in spite of my dodgy feelings about needles. It had seemed to go okay until I was drinking OJ afterward and suddenly woke up on a cot, with a bemused volunteer saying, “You kind of nodded off into your cookie plate, big guy. You okay now?” I was, so in spite of this auspicious start and unchanged feelings about needles, I tried it again a few months later, and had pretty much the same thing happen. Blood donations got to be an interesting internal contest between wanting to do a good deed and suspecting I’d get woozy.

Dane was someone I really trusted, so, in spite of my feelings about the needle, the next time I went to the blood bank, I turned my eyes to my arm and watched… and… no doubt helped by the great phlebotomy at Stanford, it was no big deal.

Well, actually it was a very big deal – this big emotional sigh went through me, the kind that says, “Dang, all those years getting myself all worked up over something I couldn’t even bear to watch, and now that I watched, it’s not so bad. I never got woozy or light-headed again, and came to realize that fixating on how much I thought I hated needles was the cause of most of that. At the risk of mixing a metaphor, once I looked, I’ve never looked back, moving on to a lot more donations, organizing blood drives, and trying to think up ways to convince other people that blood donation is both a very big deal, and not such a big deal.

I use that example for other situations in life where you can clench your jaw and look away at the last second and have something done to you, or keep watching, presume less than the worst, and be part of the process. When your young kid freaks out and says that there’s a monster in the closet, you can roll your eyes and say ‘you’re imagining it, go back to bed’…. or you can say ‘let’s go look together’, and coach the act of shining a light on what you think you’re afraid of. Involvement is part of it – facing someone’s anxiety with them, whether on their first bunny ski slope, a relaxed run through a mock job interview, or being a donor-buddy and signing up with them for a blood drive. Don’t underestimate how many great sighs of relief, of ‘that wasn’t such a big deal’, are out there every day, waiting for a confident example to get them started. Dane probably didn’t think much of telling me to watch the needle, but I’m glad that he did, and hope to continue to pay it forward.

Stanford Blood Center has some truly great phlebotomists. When you watch, you get to see people do the fine art of a needle stick really well. It’s an amazing little piece of performance art to get to witness and appreciate. Next time you get a great needle stick, take the time to tell the nurse that they did a great job. I guarantee you it is another opportunity for something to be no big deal, and a very big deal, all at once.

Are there any tactics you’d like to share on overcoming your own fears?