Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fear of needles is nothing a French breakfast can't fix

From today's Briefing:

Anticipation of a dreaded event is almost always worse than the event itself. Sometimes there are even pleasant surprises.
I remember that every time I’m done filing months of stacked paperwork. Or leaving a dental appointment. Or sitting down after speaking to a group of people.
The past couple of weeks, I’ve been dreading Katie’s appointment for allergy testing, anticipating heightened drama from the patient.
Her fear of needles is intense. This spring, she needed a shot of antibiotics to help fight persistent ear infections. Administering the shot required two nurses plus me. Katie’s screams echoed throughout the clinic, which was obvious from the curious, sympathetic looks we received when leaving.
On our drive home, she extrapolated her worries from that shot.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to have babies. Because that hurts more than shots. And shots hurt. But the problem is, I’m really good with children. So, what should I do?”
I told her she could wait 20 or 25 years to worry about the pain of childbirth.
Her ear infections continued, and under her doctor’s care, we’re looking for solutions. One is allergy testing, with the idea that if we can address the allergens, we can stop the production of so much fluid in her sinuses.
In the past, I’ve tried two approaches for this kind of appointment — explain it in advance or spring it on the child on the way to the office.
Allergy testing is an uncomfortable procedure (I know from experience) and not one that I would want to be surprised with, so I elected to give Katie plenty of notice and time to ask questions.
I also promised lunch anywhere she wanted if the appointment went well. Her first request was a restaurant in Paris, France. (She got me on a technicality.) We eventually settled on a nearby pancake house.
Two weeks of preparation led to Tuesday morning.
Big brother Cooper is also averse to needles and to watching his sister in pain, so he stayed in the waiting room while Katie and I sat in a tiny office with a nurse and her accoutrement.
There was no denying Katie’s apprehension, and the nurse adjusted accordingly. She explained what she would be doing with the creams, vials and needles on the desk — and what might hurt a little or a lot.
Katie agreed to sit in my lap and allowed the nurse to prick her forearm with a bunch of tiny needles and liquid allergens. It was uncomfortable, but she didn’t cry — until she saw droplets of blood forming.
While she stared at that blood, the nurse described the process of placing bigger needles with more liquid under the skin. This prospect triggered a 10-minute meltdown.
Katie cried and hollered. She was so loud, Cooper later reported, that a child in the waiting room requested cotton balls for his ears.
I was able to talk her down for a few seconds, but then she’d spy those needles again, and the monumental breakdown would resume.
I allowed the nurse to practice on me. We thought that if Katie could see the procedure and how little it actually hurt, she’d relent. The crying escalated.
The appointment was over. Incomplete results. (And no pancakes, though I didn’t dare say that aloud yet.) We told Katie that to determine her allergies, she would instead need to go to a lab and have one vial of blood drawn.
The description of that procedure created an even more dramatic reaction.
“I don’t like either option!” she wailed between sobs.
Eventually, she decided that a bunch of little needles were better than one big stick. The appointment was back on, and she allowed the nurse to poke her arm seven times.
We waited for her skin to erupt (or not). Then, the appointment was really over.
“What was the worst part?” Cooper asked on the drive to pancakes.
“The screamin’ and cryin’,” Katie admitted.
Not the needles themselves. The buildup to the needles.
Those raw emotions were assuaged with a plate of pigs in a blanket covered in syrup, which we ate under a black-and-white photo of the Eiffel Tower. It was an unexpected detail that made the whole experience a little more bearable.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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