Many people who know me are unaware that I have a degree in Medical Technology. It’s not something that comes up very often, having spent more than twenty-five years in a creative services group and in a variety of jobs that included writing, systems support and management. It’s a fun environment, one that I’m lucky to be part of. And honestly, my departure from science was really more of an escape than a career development choice.
During the last year of my training at the University of Illinois Medical Center, I spent six weeks in a local hospital as a lab intern. Within that period we were required to go on morning rounds with the phlebotomy team (blood drawing) for three days. They started at 5am, pre-dawn, and as a result a few of them laughingly referred to themselves as vampires.
I am neither a morning person nor a fan of patient contact. The combination made me extremely nervous. Practicing my new craft on a bench covered with test tubes and glassware allowed for mistakes that were easily remedied and without witnesses. To wake up a patient, a stranger, and stick a needle in their arm for perhaps the third time ever was a recipe for anxiety. I told my phlebotomy trainer that I’d prefer to hang out and just watch, that I would never work in the role I was about to experience. She shrugged and agreed.
My mother, Marge Larson, spent time in hospitals with increasing frequency before her death from Lupus forty years ago this week (Feb 21). My internship occurred just months later. Being thrust back into that setting was a vivid reminder of recent loss and sorrow. It may have been therapeutic in the long run, but it wrung my emotions like a dishrag at the time.
On day one, we headed up to the Oncology unit in our white lab coats with a plastic carryall full of stoppered tubes of various colors, needles, rubber tourniquets, gauze and bandaids. We woke a number of patients from their sleep. It’s an awkward experience, waking a stranger in a darkened room, an invasion of privacy temporarily considered normal for the duration of the hospital stay. If we had a paper requisition, we were compelled to arrive back in the lab with one or more tubes of blood for testing that morning. Doctors, nurses and patients were counting on us.
I don’t recall the names or faces of the first few “draws” that day. But patient four will stick with me forever. Her name was Marge Larson. When I saw her name I had one of those Alfred Hitchcock moments known as the “dolly zoom” – moving forward while zooming out. It’s a dizzying effect you’ve no doubt seen in Vertigo, Jaws and other films. My partner saw me blanche and asked if I was ok. I nodded and got a grip. It was just too soon.
But Marge 2 was the sweetest little lady, unusually receptive to our visit at the crack of dawn. Perhaps her cancer had taken her to a place where every living moment was a joy and an opportunity to engage with those around her. At some point I told her that my mother’s name was Marge Larson. I left out the part about her demise. She asked my what my name was.
“Vic” I said.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “My son always wanted to be named Victor!”
Now, I’ve never been particularly fond of my name, but it has significance throughout several generations in my family. I always thought a more dynamic, all-American name would have served better in combination with my last name. Jake. Duke. You know, something that sounds more like a decathlete than a robot.
“Really? What’s your son’s name?” I asked.
“Lance,” she said, smiling.
“Lance Larson!” I blurted. “Tell him that’s a cool name!”
We continued with a bit of small talk, finished labeling tubes and packing up for the next stop, and then went on our way. I don’t know what happened to Marge 2 or her son. It was a short relationship with long lasting impact. And it was definitely the high point of my phlebotomy rotation. We said goodbye, left the Oncology unit and headed down to the fifth floor, the psych ward.