Needle-Wary Patients Ask for Her by Name
One in an ongoing series.
During her workday, Mary Berry interacts with people who are frightened. People who are hostile. People who look the other way. People who hold their breath. And people who weep.
That’s because Berry is a phlebotomist at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia – the person who draws blood from patients. It’s safe to say that no one who comes to her office is altogether pleased to be there. Indeed, some sources say 10% of Americans have a fear of needles. In the extreme, it even has its own diagnosis: trypanophobia.
“A lot of people are afraid of needles,” Berry said. “I try to make them comfortable.”
Berry works in the Department of Digestive Disease and Transplantation and draws blood from more than 30 people a day. They are there because they need an organ transplant, because they’ve had one, or because they’ve volunteered to donate an organ.
Many of them tell Berry that they’re “a hard stick” – meaning it’s difficult to find a vein to puncture for a blood draw. They’re apprehensive about Berry’s ability to draw blood without inflicting pain by jabbing them again and again. “They say, ‘Are you sure you can do this? You look very young.’”
“I tell them that I won’t hurt them. If I can’t find the vein, I’ll get someone else who can,” she said. But, young or not, Berry has found a way to do her job so well that some patients ask for her by name when they come to the department.
“I always asked for Mary,” said Wendy Shaylor, a retired prison administrator who donated a kidney to a stranger earlier this year. Shaylor was a “hard stick” – and was afraid of needles, too.
Berry changed all that. “She always managed to get my blood,” Shaylor said. “I told her she was the kindest, sweetest person and she always managed to get it done.”
Shaylor was one of the patients who held her breath at first, Berry recalls with a laugh. “I had to tell her to breathe. When I stuck her, she turned around and said, ‘That’s it?’ Oh, my God. I didn’t even feel it.’”
Berry attributed her skill to the training she received at Einstein and the compassion she has for the people who come to the lab. Sometimes she’ll reveal to them that she’s endured her own medical crisis, so she can relate to their worries.
“Sometimes I think patients feel that nobody understands what they’re going through,” she said. “I understand how it is, being in the hospital myself. And I’m a hard stick; I’m scared of needles myself.”
So how did a person who’s afraid of needles become a phlebotomist? Berry said she started playing nurse with her siblings when she was a little girl. “Ever since I was younger, I always pretended I worked in a hospital. I’d play with my sisters and say, ‘You be the patient and I’ll be the nurse.’”
“It’s something I’ve always loved,” she said.
And nothing can change that – not even frightened or hostile patients who hold their breath or weep.