I’ve always been nervous around needles. In college, I joined a group of my fellow students to donate blood. The nurse pricked my finger and I stumbled like a drunk into the other room where another nurse intercepted me, steering me to safety. “We won’t be taking blood from you today,” she said wryly. In University, while enrolled in the Dental Hygiene program and after being immunized, I was told I stood up and abruptly fainted, smacking my head on some nearby equipment on my way down. I woke up lying in a bed, unsure as to where I was, and, most unfortunately, pantsless. I was informed that, once on the floor, my bladder let go. Poor, prone, pony-tailed Polly lying in a puddle of pee in front of her peers! To this day, I use the restroom before any sort of procedure involving a needle. I couldn’t even watch my daughter get her ears pierced in the mall at Claire’s without sitting down next to the table and putting my head between my knees.
It’s not just the needle that bothers me. I find blood, with its syrupy consistency and obscene redness, repulsive and horrifying. I hold my hand in front of my eyes during cop shows, suspense thrillers, and action adventure flicks whenever somebody gets knifed, impaled, decapitated or shot full of holes, because any gore becomes tattooed on my psyche. It’s odd to note that after taking a career test following High School, the dental and medical professions were identified as a good fit for me job-wise and even odder that I pursued both fields knowing what I know about myself. (You can read about my stint as a Dental Assistant here.) Just talking about blood or cutting or watching medical procedures on TV or video can elicit almost the same symptoms in me as getting an injection.
In 1988, I was privileged to travel on a small music team to Africa. We were visiting a missionary hospital and had been invited to watch an abdominal surgery. Everyone on my team was excited about it. I recognized it as a once in a lifetime opportunity and decided to attend despite my previous blood donation debacle. On the big day, we were scrubbed in and lined up off to the side of the patient, as the missionary doctor made her first incision. When I saw her hauling this man’s intestines out of his body like so many fleshy, sausage links, I fled the bedside. I thought I could recover my equilibrium outside the operating room, but space is at a premium in Africa. The only place to sit down was near another missionary doctor performing a surgical biopsy on a patient’s armpit. I doubled over. Closing my eyes would have to do.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an appointment for my annual physical, which, of course, involves the taking of blood. (I say taking because my blood was being extracted, but also because I’ve resigned myself to the fact that giving blood isn’t one of my strengths. I hope that my work as a Health Care Aide is enough of a contribution to society that I can leave the giving of blood to other, more hardy individuals.) I sat in the desk chair in the lab and laid my arm out flat for the nurse to wrap it with the tourniquet. I began to make conversation to distract myself from the unpleasantness to come. The nurse, while placing the needle commented, “Is this hurting you? You might end up with a bruise.” I explained that this kind of thing always made me feel yucky and that I’d been working to overcome it. As soon as I said this, it was as if a storm rolled in. A hot flush travelled up my body and my head began to cloud over. I felt the colour draining from my partially-masked face and both nurses in the room sprang into action, telling me to lean forward, putting an icepack on the back of my neck, and swabbing my forehead with a cool washcloth. While I was struggling to stay conscious, trying to regulate my breathing, and saying the name of Jesus in my head, they reassured me there was nothing I needed to worry about, this was my body’s natural response, and I should ask to lie down in the future.
I was instantly reminded of another incident with a poke-y thing. It was early in my pregnancy and I’d begun to bleed. I went into emergency, anxious and sad about possibly losing my baby. This nurse quickly and efficiently drew blood, but this didn’t deter me from almost fainting. “You better pull yourself together,” she sputtered in an irritated tone. “You’re being ridiculous. You need to get over this.” I relayed this story to the lab nurse, as I gingerly lifted my head, telling her how much shame I felt in that moment and how I’d been trying to fight my body in this regard ever since. The lab nurse was incredulous. “If you ever see that woman on the street, I’d be telling her off,” she said, as she expertly guided me to a bed for some recovery time before having to drive myself home.
I lay on my side and hot tears streamed into my mask. I was given permission to be weak. They’d come alongside me with gentle words and appropriate helps. Of course, my mind started spinning webs of thought about comfort, as it often does when I’m having an epiphany.
Comfort is both a noun and a verb, both “a feeling of relief in affliction or sorrow”, and an action, “to cheer up, console, or soothe when in grief or trouble”. Thankfully, we can receive comfort even when alone through objects and our surroundings. A fluffy, warm blanket, a cup of steaming hot cocoa after coming in from the frigid cold, a hearty meal after a hard day’s work, the cozy folds of one’s bed, the familiar confines of home, the scent of a lost loved one still clinging to clothing, and the various and pleasant manifestations of nature, such as the rhythmic sound of ocean waves or the rustle of wind in the trees all serve to lull us into a contented state.
However, God made us to be in community. Our healing and restoration usually comes through the comforting efforts of others. Just as God is the origin of love and as 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us”, so comfort finds its source in God and empathy comes from Him. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 speaks of comfort as being a gift from God, given to us in our time of need, and stored up to be used to comfort others. Comfort isn’t something we hoard, ignoring the distress of those around us. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10:8, when they were sent out on His authority to participate in His healing ministry, “Freely you have received, freely give.” Those nurses gave from their storehouse. They suffered, were comforted, and passed it on to me. It’s hard for us to imagine suffering having any redeeming value and, yet, it’s through our suffering that we’re able to recognize the suffering of others and reach out with compassion and kindness.
How many of us have been warmed by written condolences after the death of a loved one, by meals dropped on our doorsteps, or offers to shovel our walks or mow are lawns? How many of us have been wasted in a hospital bed and been encouraged by family and friends, bearing flowers, munchies, and magazines? Who of us wishes to worry, struggle, or grieve alone? Even as an introvert, I prefer the presence and reassuring embrace of others when I’m suffering, to the distracting chatter of the tv or my favorite blanket.
When my father was dying and I couldn’t be at his bedside (you can read about that here), I was at church. Before going into the service, my emotions, so raw and turbulent, took over and I had to duck into a darkened room outside the sanctuary to collect myself. Shortly after, my former pastor, Ian Lawson, joined me. He saw me go into the room and wanted to inquire about how my dad was doing. I know he didn’t realize what he was walking into, but that meeting was God ordained, as Ian had lost his wife, Connie, to cancer some years ago and they publicly shared their grief to the benefit of us all. I don’t remember what he said, but his caring presence in my anguish brings tears to my eyes as I write this. You may not know what to say to people when they’re hurting, but don’t ever let your uncertainty stop you from reaching out to someone. Your presence and heartfelt words may be just what that person needs.
Yes, comfort is a pain killer, an anxiety suppressant, a grief tranquilizer, as necessary as any medical professional, pill, or treatment and we’re all qualified to offer it based on our inclusion in the human race. Still, there are moments when comfort isn’t prescribed, like when a child takes a tumble and we wait to see if it’s something she can shake off, not wanting to upset her unnecessarily. Or, when a friend is willfully behaving badly and suffering the consequences and we give him a kick in the pants rather than a pat on the back. A true friend will tell us the truth and challenge us to take responsibility and make things right, but this requires discernment and tact. It’s when we’re broken, when we’re utterly devastated, that admonishment is more harmful than helpful. May we never cause another to be so defeated that they lose hope. Sometimes, we need a rebuke and a sermon. More often than not, we need an understanding listener and a hug.
Feeling better, I got up from my resting place. I thanked God for those nurses who had taken such tender care of me and asked Him to bless them for their kindness. In the warmth and light of their glowing example, I confessed my sinfulness, knowing that I’ve not always responded to others as I should and asking God to give me His compassion. On my way out, I popped my head into the room where my angels were working and gave them one more thank you. I left the lab that day, my hope in humanity renewed, running on a little less blood, but a whole lot of grace.
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