When you look up “phlebotomy” on Wikipedia, you are offered three disambiguated pages: one for “venipuncture,” or the medical procedure of puncturing veins; “bloodletting,” the gory old-school practice seldom repeated since ancient times; and “phlebotomy,” the Greek gothic-metal band from the nineties. (Now called On Thorns I Lay.)
For the sake of this blog, I’m going to write about phlebotomy with reference to venipuncture. After all, at least once a week since my mother’s cancer diagnosis I’ve experienced a bird’s-eye view of blood being drawn, and I’ve marveled at it since day one.
At the chemo clinic where she gets her Gemzar , they don’t just take a sample of blood and send it off to the lab. Before each round of treatment they prick my mom, drain a few drops of the good stuff, and run it through a computer, where my mother’s makeup comes up on a computer screen as a series of graphs. Then they print out her stats on a dot matrix printer, peel off those nostalgic perforated strips, and send us on our way with an up-to-the-minute reference point of my mom’s juice to show the doctor. The numbers and charts reveal a bunch of stuff, namely her white blood cell count, platelet count, hemoglobin, and on-base percentage. The nurse is in a perpetually good mood, even when handling bodily fluids, cancer patients, and their overly inquisitive daughters.
The word “phlebotomist” comes from the Greek words for “vein” and “cutting.” In light of the nursing shortage, and the fact that doctors are busy golfing, the art of tapping veins a la Sid Vicious has been left to technicians who are skilled in riding the red highway to the laboratory. Tasks of the phlebotomist include preparing stains, properly labeling all samples (check out this nifty blood-sample labeling pen that’s a tool of the trade), sterilizing equipment, recording blood pressure and pulse, and watching that Twilight movie. Some also imitate R. Kelly and handle urine specimens.
One of the main responsibilities of a phlebotomist is to explain the procedure to the patients. This is where things can get somewhat dangerous. One of my closest friends is a girl who measures about 5’4″ and weighs roughly as much as the average amount of cocaine rapper Plies’ manager keeps in his house. She’s afraid of having her blood drawn, and has had to be restrained by more than one nurse in order for a sample to be procured. This girl, who has defended me in a street fight, can’t even mention the word “blood” in an email without getting queasy. In a cruel twist of fate, she’s had to undergo several surgeries and countless medical tests in the past year, nearly all of which required a visit from a “vein cutter.” She attributes her phobia to three things: an irrational fear of having her wrists touched, the act of locating a vein, and the explanation. As she puts it, “I don’t want them to talk to me about it at all when I’m there. I don’t want them telling me what they’re doing. It’s actually the prep that is worse for me than the needle. I’m not afraid of needles. It’s the searching for the you-know-what that I hate. I can’t be more descriptive than that.”
It turns out that a lot of people have a serious queasiness about those things that rhyme with the state of Maine.
Fear of veins and wrists actually is called carpophobia. If you want to help someone get over this phobia, you don’t have to endure years and years of training to become a psychotherapist, after all that only inevitably leads to being paid ridiculous sums of money and having a few letters added to your name. You can become a phlebotomist.
Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? It turns out that many who enter the lab tech field do so because they want to help people get over these fears, not compound them. “I want to help people. I love showing children the “blow away the pain” technique,” says technician Candice. Some phlebotomists even suffer from this squeamishness themselves. “I started doing this in order to overcome my fear of needles. That and I wanted to get closer to my nursing degree,” says Nate, who now is a registered nurse.
Although the requirements vary state by state, nearly all require copious training and a minimum of a GED. Most employers do demand some sort of certification, but there are cases where this can be obtained on the job. Accredited phlebotomist programs take at least a semester to complete, but some last as long as a year, and all phlebotomists are required to take multiple courses in anatomy, physiology of the circulatory system, and blood drawing techniques. Much like Louie from Interview With A Vampire, all phlebotomists will have to learn from hands-on training, and will practice multiple venipunctures on live humans who say ouch. Certification needs to be renewed on an annual basis, and Certified Phlebotomy Technician (CPT) and Registered Phlebotomy Technician (RPT) certificates are granted by The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), American Medical Technologists (AMT) and the American Society for Phlebotomy Technicians (ASPT).
The reward of being a phlebotomist is an annual salary of $24,350, according to The American Society of Clinical Pathologists. This breaks down into roughly $11.71 per hour, forty hours a week. Allow me to point out that this salary is less than you’d make as a forklift operator. Though I’m sure working with warehouse cargo allows for a variety show’s worth of double-entendre, not many occupations can boast such an unintentionally smutty job warning: Phlebotomists-in-training and teenage boys alike, be warned, “avoid trauma and excessive probing.”
If you’d like to become a phlebotomist, check out this tutorial but do not watch it if you suffer from squeamishness or carpophobia. You can also check in with the American Society for Phlebotomy Technicians. They vant you to draw blood.
Drop me a line: AinsleyDrew at the gmail one.
Thank you for everyone who donates! (Money, not plasma.)
Ministry of Imagery: we tie the tourniquet and tap the word veins. Hire us.