Last stop on my week-long whistle-stop tour of Auckland’s medical establishments was a return visit to the city Oncology Unit (Cancer & Blood Services), for something ominously called a Pre-Op. To my relief, this turned out to be nothing more sinister than a form filling exercise with a dapper young Indian registrar called Raj.
Q. Have you ever suffered from Kidney Failure? A. No.
Q. Have you ever has a Heart Attack? A. No
Q. Have you ever had an organ transplant? A. No
Q. Do you have any prosthetic limbs? A. No.
And so on.
I’m generally easily confused by forms, but I was able to answer the questions with confidence and poise. Heart attacks and amputations are the sort of things that would stick in my memory. With the paperwork squared away, we moved on to a cursory physical examination. “Just to check if you are fit for surgery,” Raj explains. Apart from the small matter of the cancer, I’m gratified to learn that I am fighting fit.
The surgery is necessary, I’m told, to fit a small device into my chest that allows the chemotherapy drugs to be injected directly into a main artery, rather than via a vein in the arm. The chemicals are apparently quite corrosive and can cause vein damage over time. The device consists of a small valve under my skin, connected to a tube which is in turn plumbed into an artery in my neck or near my heart. I ask Raj if this can also be used for administering beer or narcotics. He looks confused for a moment, then earnestly lectures me about the risks of inappropriate use and warns me that the device must only be used by trained nurses at the clinic. Thanks for the tip Raj.
Finally, Raj pulls out the now familiar blood-test requisition form and starts ticking boxes like he’s ordering a take-away. I protest that I had all these done just a week ago but he’s not to be swayed. he draws a map on his notepad to help us navigate the labyrinth that is Auckland Hospital to the blood lab and sends us on our way.
* * *
The Phlebotomist* is an impossibly small, stern looking Chinese lady with disproportionately large feet. She could easily be hobbit. I can’t see if she has hairy toes under her over-sized Reeboks. She shooes me into a cramped ante-room and up onto a raised chair with wide tear-drop shaped armrests upholstered in sticky, green vinyl leatherette.
I used to be a bit squeamish about blood, needles and the like, particularly when the blood in question is my own, but I’m getting to be something of an old hand at this now. I fearlessly bare both my fore-arms, pump my fists to raise some veins and present them to the hobbit for inspection. She casts a critical eye over my bulging blood-vessels and prods a couple experimentally with a stunted finger. Satisfied with her selection, she applies an elastic strap to my right, upper arm. Checking the form I had given her, she reaches into a draw and pulls out seven clear plastic vials, each with a different colored cap. SEVEN! I immediately think of Tony Hancock’s Blood-Donner sketch. “Are you mad? That’s very nearly an arm-full…”
“This will be velly click,” the Chinese hobbit says, “look out of window if you like”. I resolve to call her bluff, and force myself to watch with what I hoped looked like bored disinterest, as she carefully inserts the needle into the crook of my arm and attaches a plastic syringe with a short length of fine silicone tubing. One by one she inserts the empty vials, and I watched them fill with my dark, red-brown blood. When she is done, she drops the tubes into a silver kidney-dish and busies herself filling out little adhesive labels. I pick up one of the vials for a closer look. The blood is thick and viscous and sticks to the sides of the tube like ketchup. It’s pleasantly warm to the touch, and had a satisfying weight to it.
I’m quickly ushered out into the waiting room ro gather my things. No cup of tea and digestive biscuit. No-lie down. No merit badge.
I feel a little cheated.
*According to the helpful leaflet I read while waiting for my turn at the lab, “A Phlebotomist is the name given to a person trained to take and handle blood-samples. It is derived from the Greek word phlebos, meaning vein.” Also, here’s a good bit of phlebian trivia. I bet you didn’t know that your blood circulates your complete body once every twenty seconds. So now you know.