Old Faithful and me

Of the endless opportunities medical school provided to embarrass myself, learning to draw blood and start IVs were the worse offenders. I blamed it on my eyes’ lack of depth perception, but for weeks I was so inept I’d probably have failed to tap oil from the Alaska pipeline. In fact, it was hard to say who dreaded my futile attempts more—me or the patient. But one day, my humiliation reached a new low. I mashed my shaky index finger on the inner elbow of a patient from whom I’d been assigned to obtain three vials of blood. I couldn’t feel a thing that felt like a juicy vein. The previous blood-drawing failures earlier that day on two other patients had done little to bolster my confidence that I would ever obtain a drop—let alone three vials—from the bruised arm perched in front of me.

The patient eyed me suspiciously, no doubt sensing my insecurity. “You ever done this before?” she inquired.

I knew if I told her “not successfully,” she’d kick me out of her hospital room. My senior resident had been adamant: “Don’t leave the room until you have three full tubes of blood.” Thus, I couldn’t tell her I’d poked and prodded many patients but had never successfully obtained blood or she’d threaten me with a lawsuit if I mutilated her vein. I responded with as much confidence as I could muster, “I’ve stuck needles in patients plenty of times.” I left out the minor detail that said needles had never retrieved a single drop of blood.

My heart thudded in panic as I applied the tourniquet and probed each of her elbow bends, desperate to find a plump, untapped vein. I probed what I thought was my best bet and jabbed the needle in as delicately and quickly as I could. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I actually penetrated a vein and the red liquid of life flowed into the tube. Once I had filled all three tubes, I was so ecstatic about my first successful phlebotomy that I pulled the needle out of her arm before first removing the tourniquet. Before I could mutter, “Whoops,” a geyser of blood spurted straight toward the ceiling, landing on my patient’s head, clothes and face. Blood spattered all over my white lab coat, just for good measure.

I quickly tugged off the tourniquet and applied a cotton ball to her arm, my face now redder than the blood dripping off the bedrail. I wanted to slither into the tube of blood and swim out of sight. No way would I look this lady in the eyes.

But the next thing I knew, she was laughing! “What’d you do, hit my carotid?” she asked, mopping the blood off her face. “Too bad that wasn’t oil you struck—I’d be rich.”

As I cleaned up the mess she added, “If things don’t work out with medical school, perhaps you could get a job at Yellowstone.” We shared a chuckle about Old Faithful and then I escaped with the proof of my first successful phlebotomy. Well—sort of successful.

That night I uttered a special prayer for the kind lady with a sense of humor and a tolerance for inept medical students.