When I was 10, I had to get a four-needle TB test. A few minutes later, I stood beside my mom and said, “I don’t feel so good.” The world started turning green, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor.
Eight years later, I had to get a flu shot before sending in my papers to volunteer as a full-time LDS missionary. I was sitting on the edge of the exam table and thought, “How interesting. That’s the same color green I saw when…”
The next thing I knew, the doctor was trying to revive me.
In Rome, my zone leader volunteered the missionaries to donate blood for one of the local church members. I was grateful the phlebotomist allowed us to lie down. I didn’t pass out.
Shortly after I returned to the States, my mother developed leukemia, and I donated platelets to reduce her bleeding. Apheresis involves taking blood out of one arm, spinning it in a centrifuge to separate out the desired component, and putting the rest back in the other arm. It can take a couple of hours each time.
I loved my mom, I hated needles, and I did what I had to do.
Several years later, I came out as gay and left the Mormon Church. AIDS was raging and blood banks refused to let gay men donate, even if they didn’t have HIV. I was happy to have an excuse to avoid another needle.
I remained HIV negative for the next 12 years. Then I made a single mistake and…
I joined a medical trial as soon as I tested positive, even though it required blood draws every six weeks. The phlebotomist drew 15 vials each time. After 24 blood draws over the next three years, you’d think I would finally get used to needles.
But I didn’t. I still hated them.
After that, I continued having blood drawn every four months for the next several years. It never got better.
Of course, HIV meds led to side effects which led to other prescriptions which led to additional side effects. I thoroughly understand wanting to avoid medications of any sort whenever possible. Nothing comes without a price.
I began getting flu and pneumonia vaccines regularly, and I kept up with my tetanus shots. My great-aunt died of tetanus and, I assure you, you don’t want tetanus.
When I was finally eligible for a shingles vaccination, I rushed to get both doses. A good friend of mine in his 40s had shingles. I assure you; you don’t want shingles.
As I grew older, I eventually developed diabetes. I only needed pills at first and decided that once I needed to start injecting, I’d simply choose to kill myself instead. Facing needles every day the rest of my life sounded like a life not worth living.
Then I needed daily injections.
It turned out that insulin needles are tiny and don’t hurt much.
I gave up bread, a pain far greater than any needle I’ve ever felt.
But I eventually needed two daily injections.
And do you know what? It sucks!
It’s not so much the needle but the constant bruising. And if you aren’t careful, you end up with scarring and permanent lumps. My thighs and abdomen are covered with them.
Every morning, I swab a fresh spot of skin and meditate while waiting for the alcohol to dry. I position the needle and then … and then … and then … I inject. I see people who just lift their shirt, stab and they’re done in three seconds. Not me. It takes me a couple of minutes every day because I still hate needles.
As a gay man who lost several friends to AIDS, I understand not trusting the medical establishment. I read “Good Intentions: How Big Business and the Medical Establishment Are Corrupting the Fight Against AIDS,” back in 1990.
When a health care system’s primary purpose is to make money, when treating or healing the sick is secondary or tertiary, there’s plenty of reason to distrust doctors and drug companies.
That said, waiting until the healthcare system is perfect means never seeking medical care at all, and I’m not willing to return to the cave dwelling era.
I got a COVID vaccine the moment I was eligible. Then I got my second dose. And then I got my booster. Three shots over the course of a year. About a day and a half in diabetic years.
Yes, we should get capitalism out of health care. We need Medicare for All or some other form of universal health care. But in the meantime, let’s stop allowing phobias (of needles, of doctors, or of anything else) to keep us from protecting ourselves and those we love.
Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of, among other works, “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?” “Racism by Proxy,” and “Queer Quilting.”