Every five weeks, I see a different vampire from the phlebotomy and give this collective of blood-suckers consent to take my blood. The crimson-filled, turquoise-capped vacutainer is destined for analysis to see how fast my blood coagulates. If the vampires read my chart, they would see the graph showing values dating back to 2015, marking my third open-heart surgery when I got my mechanical aortic valve. My lab testing is lifelong, so once there are no more values, it means I am dead.
Every five weeks, I verify the same information for the vampires: name, date of birth, test type, and preferred arm. The script is hardly Oscar-worthy. The dialogue is flat, with poor character development. While we play our respective roles, the computer that stores all my medical information blips and bleeps along in binary. I am reduced to ones and zeros. I am an iota of data. A dot in the matrix. Nothing more. I tell my narrative with such rote recitation I become comatose, practically mute afterward. One person can spew out only so many facts before the brain’s motherboard becomes overloaded and fizzles out.
I do not want to be here or want to do this dialogue. I want this space between the vampire and me, fraught with adrenaline and cortisol, to go away. However, we must do this battle in which the vampire always wins in the end. The only weapon I have is the nice note I have written, politely requesting how I would like to be treated. This note is the garlic to ward off the vampire’s routine questions.
Dear lab tech,
Thanks so much for your care and support! I experience PTSD symptoms during lab work, making it hard for me to communicate. Here is the information you need to help me today.
My name is Emily Raffensberger.
My date of birth is March 20, 1989.
I am here for a protime INR. I do not need a CBC differential drawn.
My preferred arm is the left arm.
I will be using a relaxation technique that involves closing my eyes and not talking. Please let me know when you are completely finished with the lab work. Much appreciated!
Every time I close my eyes, I play peekaboo. I have control over my own story behind my eyelids. Here, I cannot be slayed by needlepoint no matter how many times I become a cross-stitch pattern. I am my own tapestry.
Standing on the wooden walkway by my favorite waterfall means I can’t get stung by the alcohol wipe. The smell of evergreen sap whisks me away. I’m immersed in not being in the lab. I tap, tap, tap my right thumb against the other fingers on my right hand, trying to catch the mist on the breeze. I do this to feel human. I am not a pincushion to be poked. I am among the hemlocks at 7:30 in the morning with the rocks, the water, the earth, and the sky. I am alone. Even the sun is barely up.
The vampire doesn’t say anything yet still makes a boisterous racket: Keyboard clack, mouse click, printer whir. Every auditory stimulus that isn’t a natural sound is an electroshock to my imagination. I hear the snap of the tourniquet — or is it a twig? The vampire tosses away the plastic wrap on the needle — or is it bird wings in the mountain laurel?
The vampire pushes on the flat part of my left arm. The vampire squeezes my left-hand open and closed to get the blood flowing. The vampire is on the hunt for a decent vein. Usually, my veins are not this elusive, but the vampire is perhaps inexperienced. The prodding on my left arm continues.
If the vampire and I had been making small talk, I might get compliments about my veins. I’ve been told I have nice big ones. I’m never sure how I feel about the critique. It usually makes me hungry because I imagine my vein is a pie in a reality TV baking competition. My vein is the winner. It has a thick, flaky crust and no soggy bottom. As a prize, the vampire will swaddle my puncture site in gauze after figuring out where best to poke me.
I let these thoughts come and go. The vampire is elsewhere, preparing someone else’s left arm, invading that person with swift sharpness. I am away from all that, taking a vacation from the daily grind of being me. Among the trees, with no one around, my body is safe. I am in control of my breath, my center, my space. I am strong, silent, and serene, surrounded by serendipity. Here, I reach enlightenment through the agony of being stabbed.
The pressure bandage is my stamped passport out of here. The vampire tightens it around my elbow, binding me up before releasing me with the words, “All done.”
I open my eyes, dismount off the chair, flop my arm around vigorously, and say with a grin, “Thanks for not taking my arm off!”
The vampire remains stone-faced but nods politely. No acknowledgment of my comedic work. It is the best morbid hospital joke I’ve got when it comes to lab work, and it always falls flat. It drives me batty. None of the vampires know how to laugh.
“I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to my directions in the note. It helped me a lot.”
The vampire hands me my note back. “Sure thing. Thank you for coming in. You were so relaxed that you relaxed me! Maybe I’ll see you next time?”
The probability is high that our paths will cross in five weeks, but I’ll still be pretending to play among the pines. After all, pine needles don’t pinch.
Emily Raffensberger is a patient advocate.