A Post about Blood on this Happy Halloween

New York State law requires that all children receive a lead test when they turn one, and again when they turn two. My daughter just turned two and underwent for the second time in her life the simple procedure known as a finger stick. My daughter didn’t seem to mind much, and gladly accepted her Dora stickers when the nurse was done.

There’s just one problem… I hate blood procedures! Actually, there’s a second problem which just exacerbates the first problem:  Finger sticks have NEVER yielded an accurate test result in my children, and they (and I) are forced to endure the more difficult (in children) venipuncture procedure.  

In each and every finger stick on both of my children, the lead levels came back high. With my son’s first test, we were worried. After all, we do live in an old house (pre 1970) and it’s probable that some of the paint was lead paint. So, we were careful. We repaired, replaced, painted over, cleaned appropriately… and after the venipuncture test several months later, his levels were normal. But then it happened again on his second birthday. And then with my daughter, the same thing happened.  With her most recent two-year test, we didn’t even wait the recommended two months before retesting… we knew it was wrong. Her blood was drawn via venipuncture two days later, and as we all expected, the test result came back normal.

This post isn’t about the efficacy, or lack thereof, of obtaining blood by finger stick. It is about why I am so annoyed by the pattern of unreliable results that I’ve seen because of what it puts me through. The finger stick itself isn’t much of a big deal for the kids. But for me to sit there and tightly hold their little arm still while the technician squeezes and presses, and physically coaxes blood drop by drop from the tip of my child’s finger to fill up a tiny vial… well, I’m squeamish just typing this. I can feel the lack of circulation in my hands right now as my they become colder and colder with my fingers moving over the keyboard. I can feel just a hint of nausea coursing through me at this very moment. It’s awful. It’s unexplainable. It’s irrational, I know. But that’s a phobia.

Before I go on describing my annoyance at these mandatory blood tests, I’m going to tell you a story. Before I tell it, I have to preface the story with two details about me that are ironic and contradictory to say the least. 1) As long as I can remember I have hated having my blood drawn. I suffered from chronic tonsillitis when I was young. I remember having my blood drawn often before my tonsils were removed… I’m not sure why. My mom has been an ER nurse her whole life, and so she knew most of the people who worked at the hospital. She and I both remember that “it took everyone in the room to hold you down” while I was having blood drawn. 2) Blood and gore do not bother me. In fact, as long as I can remember, I have loved all kinds of horror movies. My dad brought them all home and we would watch them together. I don’t even want to think about how young I was at the time! Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, all the Friday the 13th films, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We watched them all. To this date, zombie films are my favorite–the gorier the better!

And so I believed that my problem was just my overreaction to having my blood drawn. (Injections were also problematic). Maybe it was needles? But something happened to me that makes my phobia even more irrational and psychologically-seated. I suppose it was about ten years ago that I was sitting in my parents’ living room watching a very interesting documentary on blood types. It was fascinating. The documentary talked about the history of blood transfusions and how doctors were baffled that sometimes it worked while other times the procedure killed their patients. This was before the discovery of blood types. The documentary also talked about old-fashioned beliefs and practices involving blood and blood-letting using leeches and that type of thing. They also discussed contemporary views on blood and that certain blood procedures that aren’t medically necessary, are still being performed today for therapeutic reasons. I didn’t know that contemporary blood-letting is still practiced with the same therapeutic goal as massage or a sauna. Fascinating, no?

The documentary began to show scenes of one of these sessions. A woman was lying on her stomach shirtless. The therapist began tapping on her back with a small mallet to prime the blood under the surface. Then she attached small bell-shaped glass cups fitted with a rubber depressor for suction to various areas of the patient’s back. The skin below each cup became red as the suction drew the blood even more to the surface. Then the therapist removed the cup and with a small surgical looking hatchet, tapped each swollen area to puncture the skin. The blood flowed….. And I felt strange. Slight nausea, loss of feeling in my limbs, light-headedness. Then I felt sick. I made my way to the bathroom, each second my body losing feeling and becoming cold. Starting in my peripheral vision, my sight was becoming shrouded in darkness. No sooner did I reach the door, then my vision became completely dark and I fainted. The last thing I remember was hitting the bathroom floor. I’m sure I came to only seconds later. Then I became violently sick.

My visceral reaction to something so harmless is irrational. I’ve retold that story several times, and each time, including now, I feel a strong reaction surging through me. Typing the previous paragraph required several breaks, and nervous paces around the room to make the feelings subside.

I’ve come a long way. I actually became used to blood draws during my two pregnancies, although I could never watch, and could never keep my lower limbs from fidgeting to make up for the stillness my arm had to endure.

My phobia, my irrational aversion, is the reason I am so annoyed at the finger sticks’ unreliability. Not only did my children, and more selfishly I, have to endure the first procedure which turned out to be fruitless, we all had to return to the scene of the crime for a much more invasive blood procedure. And let me tell you, kids hate the venipuncture. So do the technicians in my opinion… it must be hard to draw blood from a child’s blood vessels. Children are small, they squirm, they scream. Needles are tiny, attempts can be failed. It’s terrible… and I have to sit there and remain calm!?!?… holding my child still and comforting them all the while I feel like passing out and vomiting! Terrible.

I won’t even get into my annoyance on how the bureaucracy of health care turned an already unpleasant experience into mayhem. Well, maybe I will… briefly. When my daughter’s first year finger stick came back with high lead levels, we were told to make an appointment in two months for a venipuncture. We did that and had to talk to three different people to find someone to understand why we were calling. I was disconnected once and had to retell the reasons for wanting the appointment several times. The appointment was finally made with her doctor, which I found strange as I was under the impression she could just go to the lab… but who am I to question? They must know what they’re doing, right?

So we go and we wait and we wait, and nobody seems to know why we’re there. We tell our story to the receptionist, to the nurse, to the doctor…. they are confused and after all the waiting and chaos so far, we are indeed directed to the lab, where we wait and wait again. When we are finally called into the lab, the technician, like those before, has no clue why we were there and I have to explain things all over again. Then I noticed that they are setting up the table for a finger stick. “Excuse me,” I say, “but I believe my daughter needs a venipuncture.” Again, the story.

Ok, now we’re finally ready to perform the correct procedure. I sit, already sweating, holding my daughter furiously, wrought with anticipation. The technician is nervous so she calls someone more experienced. On the way into our curtained space, the new technician bumps another technician through the curtain that separates our spaces. The recipient of this bump yells quite loudly, “Oh my god sir, I am so sorry!” Who knows what is going on over there. Maybe the poor man was jabbed with a knife, but I don’t care because I’m thinking about me and how long this damn procedure is going to take.

Alright, I’m about to lose it. Panic is heavy in the air  Finally, it is done. My daughter cries. I hold it together for a few more minutes as we make our way out of the lab and upstairs to the atrium of the clinic. I have to sit down at this point. We both survive and then I file a vicious letter of complaint. My reward, free lunch in the cafeteria…. Woah now, don’t go overboard with the concessions here!


Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point

My husband, Martijn, is Dutch… wait, that’s not quite true.  He was born in the Netherlands, lived there most of his life, and was educated there. But, he is an American too. He became a U.S. citizen in 2012. He has lived in this country since 2000.  He works and pays taxes here. We have two children that were born here. I was born here. He has strong ties to both places, to both cultures.

My in-laws don’t send us Sinterklaas packages anymore. They think we don’t appreciate them. We used to get a box each year filled with chocolate letters, pepernoten, poems, and other cadeautjes (small gifts) that typify the Dutch holiday.  It was fun!  My husband has fond memories of the Sinterklaas holiday, and when I lived in the Netherlands with him, I never thought much about it. But something changed for both of us. My in-laws are wrong in their assumption that we don’t appreciate their gift, but there was one aspect of the holiday that doesn’t sit right with us.

A few years ago, a postcard–without cover of envelope as postcards naturally are, and free for all to see–arrived in our post office box. It was from Martijn’s parents. The postcard depicted a man, face painted black as soot, with exaggerated lips of bright red. This was Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. My immediate gut reaction was shame.  I felt ashamed that such a depiction was addressed to me.  I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t shake it.  I was embarrassed, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many black people–real black people–had gazed upon this postcard with disgust during its journey through the postal service.  Perhaps I was overreacting, but I didn’t think so.

My husband was in general agreement with my feelings, and so he asked his mother not to send such images to us anymore.  As usual, she interpreted his concern as covering for his dreadful wife who, in their opinion, was the cause of any conflict between our family and theirs.  I could hear it in my mind, “Die Danielle, ik weet het niet hoor,”  which roughly translates as: “That Danielle, I don’t know about her.”  It isn’t so much the words spoken, but the tone used to speak them.  And I had heard it many times over in conversations about the other children-in-law.  As a result, they vowed to never send us anything Sinterklaas again… and they haven’t.

The Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas is making news right now.  There is a big debate on whether the persona of Zwarte Piet is indeed racist, or just a light-hearted fun character of Dutch culture.  Feelings are naturally heightened on both sides.  I won’t get into that in my post, but I invite you over to another blog for a thoughtful analysis of the Dutch Holiday.   Barbara Backer-Gray is a ‘Resident Alien’ and blogs about ‘Being Dutch in America.’ Her perspective as a Dutch person seems more valuable than mine. Her recent post, Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point, is very insightful and tackles the subject eloquently. She brings up many points, but the most valuable is this:

White people don’t get to determine what black people find racist. It’s that simple.