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Despite my fear of needles, this IOU had to be paid in blood


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I have a fear of needles. I know what you're thinking: Big deal. Who out there likes needles?

I am long past the torture years of student inoculations. Although my husband informed me after an ER visit to remove a wood particle from his eye that we're supposed to get tetanus shots every 10 years. To which I replied, "They have to catch me first."

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My youth inoculations were done at my doctor's office to spare me the embarrassment of having it done at school in front of other students. No, I didn't faint. The only one I know who suffered that fate was my sister's Grade 7 tormentor, who did so in front of her and a small group of students herded into the school nurse's office. He was very polite to her after that. For me, the doctor's office worked because I could have my anxiety attacks and body tremors in the privacy of a waiting room instead of in front of my peers.

Again, you're thinking: Big deal. You said all that needle stuff was over.

The thing that makes it still a problem for me, though, is that I need to have a one-on-one with a needle in order to repay a huge debt I incurred at birth. And I must volunteer myself to get this needle.

When I was born, I required a blood transfusion to stay in this world. In the hours following birth, I went on a 150-kilometre ambulance ride to a large medical centre. There, my blood was exchanged for that of strangers I would never know, but who saved my life just as it was beginning.

This story was told to me at a young age. At what point I developed my "debt awareness" I don't know. Somewhere in the growing-up process I became conscious of the huge obligation: Someone gave blood so you could live, and you must give blood so others can live.

I hate debt. My wise parents taught me never to buy something unless I had the cash to cover it. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. It's great advice I've always followed. Money, however, doesn't make this particular debt go away.

It had to be paid with blood. That flows through a needle. That they stick in your arm … if they can catch you.

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I've had all kinds of excuses (I like to call them reasons) for not going to donor clinics through the years, my favourite being that medical science would soon find an alternative way to extract blood. Instead of needles, they'd have kittens lick you or something.

As years passed, the excuses grew annoyingly thin and the debt grew in its heaviness. Finally, it was too much to owe for too long. With another birthday (and debt anniversary) approaching, I snapped.

"No. Not another year. You have to do this."

There was a blood donor clinic in town and it was time to pay up.

I think my body knew my mind meant business because my hands were shaking even as I pulled on my boots and buttoned up my coat. Trembling afflicted my legs as I grabbed my keys. Yoga breathing during the drive to the clinic brought calm back to my body, but not my mind.

The first test would be the first needle. Spoiler alert: For those who haven't donated, there are two needles. A finger-prick test is done to check your blood iron levels. As the procedure started, my anxiety grew. My fear of the needle morphed into a fear that I would involuntarily yank my hand away from the unsuspecting woman and she would jab herself instead of me. I sat silent, holding my breath, staring at my hand in hers, and wondering what that hand would do.

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It didn't move. It didn't have a chance. A tiny needle shot into my finger and retracted before I could blink. A teeny bandage was placed on that finger and I was sent off to the next stage, the one before the real needle.

"You can take your file and have a seat while I get your bag and needle for you."

Pardon? This seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. It was like being told to hold the rope and noose while waiting for the hangman to call your name.

I blindly balanced the blood bag, the tubing and the needle on my lap without looking at them. When a chair became available and I was safely sitting in it, I confessed my fear. The nurse reassured and commended me for coming as she wrapped a band around my arm. A vein popped up. I no longer felt anxious. I felt sick. Would my arm accomplish what my hand hadn't? I was directed to look in the opposite direction and take a deep breath.

I was grateful that I didn't feel the metal travelling into my vein, just a slight pain like a scratch and a pinch at once. Knowing I still shouldn't look, I turned my attention to the e-reader I'd brought, ironically loaded with a vampire tale. Nine minutes later, the needle was removed. A weight was lifted; I felt lighter. Literally – my legs first, then my arms, then my head. Oh God, I thought this would happen before the needle! My new weightlessness was no doubt apparent to the nurse, because she quickly reclined my chair and placed an apple juice in my hands. Asking first if I wanted to see, she held up the bag of my blood to show me. "Three lives can be saved from this," she said. I smiled at her, proud of that bag.

A needle had brought blood and life to me, and a needle took my blood and life to give to someone else. The circle was complete, my debt repaid. Getting a needle never felt so good.

Jackie Kuntz lives in Listowel, Ont.

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