The natural assumption made by any young child entering a doctor’s office is that he’s about to receive a shot.
On this occasion, though—and it can’t have been the first time I’d ever gotten a shot—I don’t remember being afraid. My mother had probably promised me a lollipop afterwards. Such was the custom.
I was…I was young. Memory’s imperfect. I do recall a large chair of brown plastic; my legs dangling above the floor. I think, during that interminable period of boredom where good little boys and girls are expected to occupy themselves with staring vacantly into space or perusing the adventures on the Duck Tales, I think I rifled through all the drawers in the examining room. From this I learned that the drawers in a doctor’s office contain an endless supply of pens, and a regrettable—to me, back then—dearth of scalpels.
Having finished that task, and possibly on cue, I asked my mother how much longer. She took my hand and told me to be patient. Ordinarily this would have prompted a barrage of follow-up questions, but this time I didn’t ask. Perhaps it had something to do with my hand clutching hers.
The nurse comes in. I hop up on the examining table—an exhilarating experience when you’re all of four feet tall—and peer down my nose at her as she endeavors to roll up the sleeve of my bulky gray full shirt. It must have been raining that day; I only wore that shirt when it rained.
Eventually she realizes the shirt’s too much trouble and I remove it as per her instructions, tossing it carelessly to my mother. That done, I look at her expectantly and she turns away and tells me to lie down.
The fabric coating the table is someone’s desperate attempt to replicate leather and every time I change position it stuck to my skin. Freedom from that rewarded me with a faint pink kiss to the flesh that was in contact with the table. I suppose I was sweating. I suppose that’s what made it so difficult. But I don’t remember being afraid.
I don’t…in medical school, nurses must be instructed in the administration of shots. Someone, somewhere, has stood in the front of a classroom and scribbled on a blackboard, “Inform the child that they’re going to receive a shot. Tell them it will hurt a little, but it will be okay. Tell them they can hold your hand if they like and remind them that the appropriate parental unit is nearby.”
I’m going to give you a shot, she says. It will hurt a little—she smiles reassuringly, and I smile back, because any adult with the patience to smile at me is an immediate candidate for sainthood—but it will be okay. I can hold your hand if you want. I shake my head no.
She knots a thick yellow rubber band around my arm and it stings the skin. I imagine the numbness spreading; I picture numbness as those little dots you see before your eyes when you press the heels of your hands against them. I’m told to make a fist and I clamp my eyes shut. I’m told again to make a fist.
I never thought I’d be describing the sensation of a needle puncturing the skin. It’s perhaps unnecessary—most people have experienced it.
It’s only a needle. My eyes were shut, the knuckles of my right hand must have been white, and that was the thought I clung to. I felt the nurse’s fingers, cool, on my arm, steadying it.
It’s…it’s not sharp and sudden and searing. It’s nothing to be afraid of. A cringe and it’s over. It’s done.
What it is is deliberate. Deliberate and, for the briefest instant, undeniably present, the focus of every hypersensitive nerve and brain cell in the body. Then it’s gone. Done.
But it’s not, because there’s a droplet of blood pooling on the arm and until the nurse dabs at it with cotton and slaps a bandage over it you’re left staring at this tiny bead of red and imagining the hole it had to have leaked from.
She told me I’d been very brave, and my mother nodded in agreement. Up until the age of twelve, every time I managed to grimace through a shot, I was told I’d been brave. I prodded the bandage on my upper arm a few times. Dull pain resulted.
My mother offered me a hand off the examining table, but I slid to the ground myself. She reminded me how brave I’d been, and suggested we go out to get that lollipop.
That was a certain vaccination. Needless to say—although most of what I’ve said has been needless—I’ve never had that either.
I’ve never really been comfortable around needles, either.