By Khevin Barnes
Trypanophobia is a fear of medical procedures involving injections or hypodermic needles. It’s fairly common, and though most adults with this malady don’t talk about it, I’ve been pinned down by the thought of sharp objects piercing my flesh for as long as I can remember; stuck in my own fear of a pain that has never materialized.
The truth is, I have needle phobia, and most of it is in my imagination. I believe that I can trace this back to a childhood trauma. My father once piled all four of us kids into the car, telling us that we were going for a root beer and french-fries at the local drive-in. We believed him, and indeed it was true, but not until we stopped first for polio shots. This was in 1957, a few years before the oral polio vaccine was given as liquid drops via the mouth. I can still remember the confusing feeling of elation as I drank my root beer, along with the contrasting feeling of distress and betrayal at being sabotaged and tricked by my parents.
And so, at the age of seven, I began to be suspicious of needles. I suppose I could have chosen to be suspicious of root beer, but I’ll leave that to the psychologists among us to explain. The point is this: I have needle phobia. As I write this, I know I need a flu shot, and a pneumonia shot and a shingles shot and more…but not just yet.
When the Covid-19 vaccine first became available to me as a seventy-year-old, I thought about it carefully. In the end, my trust in true science (not to be confused with pseudo-science or conspiracy theories) helped me in my decision to get vaccinated. Living here in Vail I had a chance to get my shots locally but ended up traveling to the convention center in downtown Tucson to face my fear.
“You’ll feel a little pinch,” are usually the last words I hear before the dastardly deed is done, and quite often spoken in a less than believable tone. “Liar!” I want to holler loudly, but my wiser self says, “Don’t irritate the one who holds the sword.” And indeed, I am completely helpless at that moment. I see my life flashing before my eyes and the possibility of escape, well, inescapable.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve faced in recent years was my decision to actually experience acupuncture while living in Hawaii, just before my wife and I moved to Vail. I had undergone some surgery there and a friend who was studying to become certified as an acupuncturist offered to help me find some relief from the discomfort I was feeling during my recovery. I was cautiously accepting of his offer but really questioned the “puncture” component of the technique.
I asked him a lot of questions. Mostly they were about the perceived distress I thought I might experience with needles in my face, my chest, my hands and other places. He answered my questions and addressed my fears and said the door was open to finding some relief, if only I was willing to give it a try. I was invited to lie down on a long sofa, and I watched with one suspicious eye as he laid out some very long and very thin needles—all sterilized and sharp and ready to do their work. He instructed me to breathe for a minute or two. Together, we gently inhaled and exhaled in rhythm, two friends, brought together with a sense of comradery and trust between us that was as real as it gets.
And then he slid a needle into my cheek, just below my left eye. I remember thinking, “You might be killing me, but I can’t feel that.” “Breathe,” he said, and I did. A second needle was delivered. I felt a deep sense of relief and no pain. There were a couple of needles placed in my hand and one in the fold between my thumb and index finger. After that I have no memory of the procedure. Unbeknownst to me, I had fallen into one of the deepest and most peaceful sleeps I have ever experienced. Over the next few months, I received a few more treatments. I also gained a new respect for an ancient Chinese form of integrative medicine that, until that time, had frightened me.
Today, I still get a bit squirmy during blood draws, and I’ve had a lot of these over the years. But I’ve also come to better understand that the fears we carry, often related to an event that occurred long ago in our lives, can limit the prospects and the possibilities that may be available to each of us in our own health and healing. Fear is a double-edged sword. It might prevent you from the chance of being hurt, but it may also hurt any chance of being helped.
As for my Covid-19 vaccine here in Arizona; when I sat down with the gentleman who was about to administer my inoculation, I nervously asked him, “You’ve been giving a lot of these shots for weeks I’ll bet?” Without batting an eye, he replied “Oh no, you’re my first one.” I laughed out loud, and before the air had left my lungs, he offered me a tissue to wipe my worried brow and said…”Have a great day. We’re all done.”
I have to admit that I’m still not entirely cured of my needle phobia. But not being one to give up easily even after all these probing and penetrating years, I am willing to give it another shot.
Khevin lives in Vail with his wife, two cats and a tortoise. He’s a long-time writer for CURE magazine and, when not distracted by routine medical procedures, picks a pretty mean 5-string banjo.