I learned phlebotomy from the second-best at the art of bloodsucking – the staff.
The absolute best – the masters and mistresses themselves – were the phlebotomists. We kept a certain distance to them. The only time you talked to a phlebotomist was to beg them to take your late lab request slips, or to argue with them when they left behind one. The combination of wheedling and haranguing we employed to get them to do their job meant that it was best to stay away when they were quietly and actually performing it.
But the staff – the lovely nurses and nursing assistants we worked alongside – they were the people I learned phlebotomy from. Their cannulations made them defter with a needle, more able to suss out the vein in that swollen, dead-looking limb. More than once, I have stood to the side, admiringly watching as one of them would blind prick an arm, the needle efficiently sliding into the skin, the beeline of blood inevitably following, seemingly from nowhere.
But the staff had a million tasks to do, and you could only request them so many times to do a sample in the middle of the night. In surgery, however, there were no excuses when the labs didn’t show up in the morning. In the beginning I asked the staff to help. Then I became more confident, making the prick myself, only calling for their help when two or three piercings failed to coax out that wellspring of life.
I also learned from the internet, deciding to look it up after my boy offered to be a human pincushion (“Max five pricks a week, Shumaila.”). I have always turned to the internet, whether for info on how to construct a hula hoop, or how to make your own sugar wax. And so I found cardinal rules that will help me for years to come – prick what you can feel, not see. Keep your materials out and ready. Always use a torniquet. Take your time.
And so I got better, with all that learning and copious chances to practice. And that brought with it its own satisfaction – when you pricked an old, wrinkly person and still managed to find blood, when you did your own deft blind pricks on narrow children’s arms and still managed to elegantly locate and extract from the vein what you needed for your samples. Sometimes I would overdraw in sheer joy of mu success, taking an extra cc in heedlessness. But not often.
As in all things, the craft demands confidence. If a first prick goes wrong, and a second fails too, it can be daunting to try a third time, and also not fair on the patient being used as a pincushion. I always apologised profusely when patients suffered multiple pricks, but at the start I explained such may be necessary. And often as not it would be worth it to make that extra try. In phlebotomy, as in many areas of life, sometimes third time is lucky.
See you guys soon, with more hospital stories.