Needle Phobia

"IMG_4580" by robertgeiger1 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

An invisible clock quickened as I watched my children become young adults. How could I preach to them to get preventative medical care if I didn’t? I needed to find a way to cope with my fear of needles. I was a ticking time bomb of cancer waiting to burst its polyp and spread.

Just thinking of someone inserting a needle into flesh shoots my phobia to an elevation that ignores, among other health issues, my risk for a rare type of colon cancer that my dad died from at 30. I even wince and close my eyes when a commercial for a diabetic test kit pops on the TV. My dangerous break from dealing with the anxiety of getting a simple IV could keep me from seeing my children grow into adults.

I rescheduled an appointment with my gastroenterologist I canceled three years before. He performs regular upper and lower endoscopies on me as a cancer preventative and has removed multiple polyps from my colon.

My strategy was to tell myself that the IV only took seconds to insert, and the nurse would take it out soon after I woke up from the anesthesia. Then, I could spend the rest of the day at home napping off the remaining Propofol in my system and doing whatever I wanted. The whole procedure only took minutes. We’d be back home in less than two hours.

On the way to the surgical center, I attempted a mental time jump sitting in the passenger’s seat of my husband’s S-10 pickup truck. But, as Joe crossed the highway, blocks from the center, I didn’t leap in time far enough. In my head, I was in pre-op where a nurse was poking a needle into my vein. My mind trick had backfired. I defaulted to perseverating on the IV, which shot me into a full-blown panic attack.

“I need to get out,” I said, jiggling the door handle, distracting Joe’s driving. Grabbing my arm to make sure I didn’t fall out, he missed the turn for the center. When we finally got there, and into pre-op, the nurse gave up after three sticks. I tried breathing through my nose and holding it for five seconds to keep from hyperventilating. My body writhed between the hospital sheets. I groaned with pain that I can’t describe because it wasn’t physical but very real to me.

The anesthetist took over for the nurse. “I can’t stop freaking out,” I said to him.

“Don’t freak out. It’s just a pinch,” he said, with a chuckle. My anxiety was so high that I hadn’t felt the nurse’s three attempts. The doctor’s lightheartedness dropped after his first stick failed. I couldn’t stop moving my head. “Now you’re making me nervous.” Horrified he’d reschedule me, I reigned in enough self-control for him to get it on the next try.

Hitting panic mode at a level where I struggled for control over myself made me determined to deal with my phobia in a way that wouldn’t put stress on those around me. It was clear that Joe’s presence hadn’t helped. Even as he had sat quietly in the chair next to me, I sensed his anxiety as we waited in admissions. Never strong around my doting mother, I realized Joe had become a sit-in for her. His attempts at humor and small talk irritated me. I apologized later and didn’t allow him to come with me again.

Our oldest daughter had received her driver’s license by the time I was due for my following procedure. I was better at controlling myself around our children, so I had Sarah drop me off outside the center. I said, “Honey, the surgical center will call you when I’m ready for you to get me.” Waiting in the center next to Sarah might have given me time to pick up on concern she may have had about her mother’s procedure.

In pre-op, I put on a hospital gown, non-slip booties, and shoved my hair into a disposable cap. Then, I climbed into bed with The Count of Monte Cristo, my classics book club read of the month. A nurse came to my bedside with her IV caddy as I read the same paragraph for the fourth time.

“I can’t look while you do that,” I said. “I have a phobia of needles that I’m embarrassed about.”

As she put the tourniquet on my arm, she admitted, “I’ve started hundreds of IVs, and still have a problem with getting one myself.”

That got me thinking. “Maybe we don’t like putting our bodies in someone else’s hands.”

The nurse rolled off her gloves. “Maybe.” She picked up her caddy and left. The IV was in. I hadn’t panicked or embarrassed myself. I still couldn’t look at the needle in my hand. But I was proud of my success.

A few years later, I had our younger daughter drop me off, and insisted she also not come inside the center. The nurse got me talking as she set up her IV materials. This time I didn’t just rattle on about my fear like I did with past procedures. I focused on the nurse. Heidi. Her name was Heidi.

“I love your name,” I said. “I almost named my daughter Heidi.”

The nurse had a son. She chatted about the internet being great for him to do research for school projects, but also how difficult it was to monitor what he was exposed to online. Focusing on her situation switched my irrational thoughts to something more important than anxiety over a needle puncturing my skin.

When it was my son’s turn to take me to the center, I wasn’t up for a ride on the back of his motorcycle after my colon prep the night before. So, he dusted off Nessy, a lifted, lime green Ford F-150 pickup truck with monster-sized wheels, and we were off.

“You need help getting down, Mom?” he asked, after shifting into neutral and stopping in the center’s drop-off/pick-up zone.

“Nope.” If he took Nessy out of neutral, she might stall. I slid from the passenger seat, laughing as I dropped three feet. “Thank you for the ride, honey.” I was actually laughing outside the dreaded surgical center.

I take Uber to my procedures now, and only need a family member or friend to pick me up afterwards. Chatting with the Uber driver grounds me in someone else’s situation, keeping my irrational fear from controlling me. At my latest procedure, I was reading the classic Riders of the Purple Sage. I understood what I read while waiting for the nurse to escorts me to pre-op. I talked with the nurse, but still didn’t watch the needle go in. Feeling so empowered after the nurse left, I peeked at the IV stuck inside my hand for the first time.

My next endeavor is to watch, without passing out or getting sick, as the nurse puts the IV into my hand. I’m not there yet. It took me twenty-two years to get this far, and that’s okay. Now that I’m continuing my regular procedures, I may have twenty-two more years to reach this new goal.



  1. I do identify with your travails. I can deal with needles but have not yet had a colonoscopy.

    1. Try to get the procedure. The prep is the most inconvenient part. There's different kinds of preps available. Your doctor will explain them. The staff at the surgical centers I've gone to are especially nice. They know that if patients don't have a good experience, they'll tell others. And not come again if they need to. Thank you for your comment. Good luck.

  2. Irrational fear? I have it too, Dawn. Complete with panic attacks. Funny coming from someone who's had 5 children. But they were all vaginally delivered--even the twins. But I needed surgery on my little toe. The tiny toe! The doctor said I was lucky because he could use a local anesthetic. I told him he couldn't. He'd NEVER keep me still. My mind invents too many scary scenarios. While the doctor did put me out, he did NOT give me something to keep me calm before the surgery. If my husband didn't keep me in the room, I would have run away! I also never look when I need an IV or needle. You are not alone, my dear. All best to you. You are in my prayers always!

    1. Thank you, Victoria. It always feels good to know I'm not the only person with irrational fears. I know many people have them, but I think people aren't inclined to admit them because it can be embarrassing. I get that. Thanks again.


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