I always get along with phlebotomists. I don’t think this is a testament to my inherent charm, per se. I think a lot of phlebotomists are just people persons. Person peoples. People people. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m a delight. But I think the fact that I’ve never had a less than positive experience while getting my blood drawn as an adult can be largely attributed to the fact that when much of your job involves gently breaking people’s skin, you probably get pretty good at breaking the ice, too. A few weeks ago I had to have some blood work done and my doctor refused to do it over Zoom. What, praytell, are we doing in this modern age if I can’t use a tricorder in the comfort of my own home to send biological details to my medical professional? Instagram can read my mind and predict which cozy sweater ad to show me every single day but we haven’t found a way to get something as pedestrian as blood from one place to another through the wifi? Cancel science.
So, I had to go in. This was fine, actually, because the one time I had blood drawn at my house was underwhelming. My insurance company required that I have a home physical because I got life insurance this summer (I’m not trying to leave David in a lurch when I pull a Gone Girl). I really thought that I could pass out of this part like it was a section of junior year French. I was like, “Oh, don’t worry. I’m fine. Just pull the figures from my license. They’re true enough.” The insurance company was disinclined to do this. They needed to send a nurse to check my vitals onsite and also take blood and urine samples. I had to pee in a cup in my own home and then exit my guest bathroom holding a cup of urine which I then handed to a stranger. I repeat: cancel science. Because this was during the pandemic, we were both wearing masks and I’d had to drink a gallon of chamomile tea prior to the home visit to calm my nerves about the whole thing. The nurse, as most phlebotomists I’ve encountered tend to be, was wonderful: talkative and quick and friendly. He did this kind of thing all day and he said he was fairly unfazed by the additional precautions brought on by the pandemic. He was already in the practice of staying safe and sterile, after all. So making small talk in a mask while asking me questions like “what do you weigh?” and “are you planning on Gone Girl-ing?” was not an impediment to his personality. Me, not so much. This was the first time I’d had someone in my home in months and I’d given him a cup of urine as a welcome present. Quarantine really erodes social skills. So, when I say it was underwhelming, I mean I underwhelmed. Cancel me. And science.
I used to live two floors up from my doctor’s office but by the time I got around to doing the blood work I had most recently, we’d moved. So, for the first time I was on time for my appointment. The waiting area for the lab has a loveseat and an armchair, which in normal times is fine but in our present reality posed a challenge for social distancing. The security guard told me to wait across the lobby so far away that I couldn’t understand what name the technicians were calling out and kept getting up and reporting to the lab in response to them calling things like “Frida Farmhoffer-McGillicutty!” I’d be like “Did you say Eric?” and they’d be like “No, where did you get Eric from? Also, you use your legal first name here so what, praytell, are you talking about?”
I waited a while, watching people who came in after me get seen, and eventually moved to the sofa after it had cleared out. A phlebotomist, a Black woman about my age, came out and asked me for my name. I replied “Frida Farmhoffer-McGillicutty! Wait, no. I don’t think that’s right.” I told her my actual name and she said “I called you forever ago!” I apologized and then she apologized and then I apologized and then she apologized profusely and if this was a romcom I imagine we’d be getting married about now.
She confirmed my birthdate and checked my address. I live in an area called Phoenix, Maryland and when she saw the Phoenix part she said “You’re a long way from home.” I replied, “About 30 minutes.” She looked confused; she thought I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. I apologized then she apologized then I apologized. I told her about how I’d been searching online for someone to paint our house and had just typed in “painters in Phoenix” and called the first person who popped up. The Arizonan painter I reached was very perplexed about what I wanted him to do. Just get on a plane and bring a ladder, my good man.
The phlebotomist laughed at this and said “You’ve got the right idea hiring someone, though. I can’t see it for doing home improvements.” I agreed wholeheartedly. She continued, “Maybe little projects, whatnot. But anything big is beyond me. Some people like to DIY but I am not that girl!” I said, “Neither am I.” She thought that was so funny that she actually slapped me five, which was the first time I’d touched another person’s hand beyond David’s in months. An improvement on the urine gift, for sure. At first I was unsure about the wisdom of this gesture but then I was like “Frida, she is holding on to your arm and removing blood from your body right now while wearing latex gloves she just put on and will throw away when you leave. Don’t worry about this five. Worry about how you’re going to get your blood back!”
My best phlebotomist interaction was two years ago, however. I was doing a day of depression errands (which are errands that you do when you are depressed). I was deeply depressed for much of that year, the worst it had been in a long while. It started the previous fall and lasted pretty much through the next fall but this point, April, was probably the lowest. That was also the year that I wrote Here for It, which is unrelated but does bode well for my continued ability to write happy books while utterly miserable. I think the writing allowed me to pierce the thick skin of depression and draw out what I believe is true at my core, which is that it is a worthwhile endeavor to be alive.
That day I’d gone to a faraway mall to sit and be sad in public. Then I bought a deeply discounted laptop bag because my first book payment had come in. Then I went to visit my grandparents’ graves. (I was going through it!) And then I went to have some blood drawn. My phlebotomist was another Black woman, possibly in her late 50s, early 60s. Maybe older, maybe younger. Black don’t crack. That’s science, uncancellable. She was friendly, talkative, drawing me out of my cloud of utter gloom. I felt, in that moment, a deep need to make a connection. Maybe I was just lonely, maybe it was something more serious, but I felt suddenly possessed by the desire to feel tethered to the world again, to be reminded that I was in it. I guess this is what happens when you spend your day being sad in a mall courtyard and getting lost in a cemetery.
I asked her how she came to be a phlebotomist. With a laugh she told me that it was her daughter’s fault. Her daughter was smart but wasn’t really great at keeping up with school. The woman and her husband tried to support her but they worried she’d never figure herself out. One day the daughter came home and said she wanted to be a medical technician. She’d picked out a program at the community college but needed money for it. The woman and her husband weren’t so sure about this, but they pulled together the money and sent the daughter. But they began to worry the daughter wasn’t showing up to class. After all that money! “So,” my phlebotomist told me, “I started going to class, too.” She started just as a way to keep track of her daughter but she found that she really liked it. So she kept coming to classes, eventually enrolling in the same program. Mom and daughter ended up graduating at the same time, I believe, and the daughter got a job at the lab where I was sitting. The daughter then got the mother a job at the lab. And the rest was history. “That was 20 years ago,” the phlebotomist told me. And now I’m recalling being surprised and wanting to ask her exactly how old she was given the timeline. She maybe sensed it or maybe she wanted to show off. She told me she was over 70. See, I told you it don’t crack. The two of them, mother and daughter, had worked together for years until recently when the daughter went off and got another job. “Leaving me by myself! But I like it here,” she said. She smiled at me, pulled the tourniquet from my arm, and sent me back out into the world, a little lighter (because of the blood that was stolen and also because of the emotional weight that she lifted. But mostly the blood.)
I think the thing with phlebotomists and me is that it’s a rare and beautiful thing to be touched; it’s a rare and beautiful thing to not find yourself hurt or bruised by the process of getting what’s coursing inside you out into the world; it’s a rare and beautiful thing to share a part of yourself with someone else through conversation, through story, and, yes, through the magic of modern science. I feel lucky to have had a good run with phlebotomists because the body is such a tender, fragile, breakable thing. A body is so temporary and but not disposable; it’s resilient, it heals, it resists. The body is a machine that holds safe your heart—the thing that replenishes every second—and your heart—the thing that expands and embraces and aches. Sometimes I am not so sure, but I think, in the balance, it is a good thing to be a human on the Earth.
The tenuous period before Festive Season, also known as Mariah Carey Season, is known as Not Yet Season, of which Mariah is also the ruler and sole copyright holder. People (me, I am people) try to start hollying and jollying and Mariah, ever the patient deity, always replies with a succinct but clear "not yet." This year, however, Not Yet Season has taken on a whole new meaning as we head into a week when we will furiously refresh our Twitter feeds all day every day to see if all the ballots have been counted and the election can be called. And for much of the week the answer will come to us on a whistle tone with the words we already know by heart: Not Yet.
I cannot, unfortunately, tell you how to decide which private island on which to spend a given weekend. That's a sacred choice that must be made with your spiritual advisor and your publicist. But I can tell you how to deal with the stress of Island Fatigue (which is a real thing that I have discovered and will be treating at a wellness retreat on my private island).
Random Thing on the Internet
I highly recommend David Byrne’s concert film American Utopia, now screening on HBOMax. During the film Byrne mentions a cover of “Everybody’s Coming to My House” by a Detroit school jazz choir and, delightfully, Byrne and director Spike Lee play the cover over the end credits. The short video of the choir preparing to perform and then performing the song is even more delightful, if you can believe it, and you can watch it here.
Just get on a plane and bring a ladder,