One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is running from a pediatrician. The doctor intended no harm. He was just trying to give me a flu shot.
It was a Saturday morning, back in the days when doctors made house calls. Being at home should have made me calmer, yet when I saw the syringe I bolted, ducking under and around the furniture. Only a cutting eye from my very unamused mother halted my escape and allowed the doctor to administer the shot into my quivering arm.
I have trypanophobia.
Simply put, that’s an extreme fear of medical procedures involving injections or needles. While common in childhood, most people outgrow it. I didn’t. I’ve handled snakes and rats without flinching. I’ve jumped out of a plane at nearly 14,000 feet. But few things have undone me like my fear of needles, which caused me to avoid doctors for decades.
Only after reading about a healthy 39-year-old man who nearly died from the flu, did I finally get another flu shot, my first in about 40 years. In full view of worried co-workers, I squirmed, got teary, and almost fainted. I swore I wouldn’t do it again.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
After quarantining and living a life interrupted for months, I was overjoyed when effective vaccines became available. Yet I knew that my needle phobia was nearly as great as my fear of contracting the virus itself.
Given the janky rollout in Massachusetts, I expected a long wait before I could get vaccinated. Then, only two weeks after I pre-registered, I got a call to make an appointment. Though I have a preexisting condition, I told the woman I spoke with that I didn’t meet any other current criteria. “No worries,” she said cheerily. She had no idea.
The first available appointment was two hours later.
My heart rate increased. My blood pressure spiked. A dizzying flush of adrenaline made it impossible to sit still. Here was an opportunity millions were waiting for, and suddenly I was again that scared kid trying to hide under the dining room table.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 25 percent of adults have trypanophobia; 7 percent completely avoid immunizations. If they’re like me, they don’t talk about it because to those who don’t understand, it sounds ridiculous.
It’s not. And especially in a pandemic, it can put lives at risk if people forgo getting vaccinated.
At the vaccination site, my partner and I were greeted with a line that snaked through the parking lot. While the comfortable weather certainly helped the mood, no one seemed upset by the wait. Some cracked jokes. An older woman sang and did a jig to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” as others joined in. A young man commented that this was “the best thing” he’d done in a year, and we knew exactly what he meant.
Everyone there had endured so much to get to that day. I thought about everyone who didn’t make it, those killed by government indifference, systemic racism, or the callous actions of others. Those of us in that line were the lucky ones.
That’s what I tried to think about instead of that sliver of silver that would enter my arm. As my turn approached, I caught a quick glimpse of a man getting vaccinated. It unnerved me, but I substituted my desire to leave with mental images of hugging family and friends, traveling, and sitting in the sunshine watching a baseball game.
So I rolled up the left sleeve of my favorite “Rockford Files” T-shirt (”W.W.J.D. What would Jimbo do?”), put my hand on my stomach, and closed my eyes. Then it was over. Just like that, it was over. I grabbed a “COVID-19 Vaccinated” sticker, and put it in my pocket.
No, I’m not cured of my needle phobia. Not even close. In every story about the pandemic, I still wince and quickly look away when someone on TV gets injected. But in the photo my partner took when I received my vaccine, what I see is hope not fear. I don’t see a frightened child, but a grown woman doing what it takes to get back to her life and protect her community.
In three weeks, I’ll receive my second shot. And I can hardly wait.