• Paul McGovern

Having the vaccine when you're scared of needles

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

I'm scared of needles.

Not quite burst-into-tears, run-outside, sick in a bin scared. More sweaty-palmed, breathe-a-bit-faster, dry-mouthed scared.

When I'm having an injection or a blood test, I try to make a point of hiding how I'm feeling. I do my best to play it cool, and if the nurse asks if I'm "OK with needles" I try to sound as breezy as possible when I say "yeah, fine" despite the slight knot in my stomach. I tell the nurse after the jab that I'm scared of needles, and if she says she wouldn't have known, I consider it a job well done. I think I'm pretty good at it, but it's quite possible the nurses are just being nice.

I don't like watching needles go into other people, even on TV. This isn't quite as bad – it doesn't make me breathe faster; but if I catch a glance of an injection, I definitely pull a face.

As a doctor, formerly a surgeon, this might seem to be a problem. Somehow though, it isn't. Operating on someone doesn't squick me out in the slightest, and if I'm the one giving the injection, I'm concentrating on what I'm doing so it's never been an issue. This is fortunate, as no-one wants their doctor to start hyperventilating and shooting darting glances around the room when they get a syringe in their hand. This would not be a good look.

You might expect then that the news I was to get my COVID vaccine would not go down well. As it was, I couldn't have been happier.

Getting vaccinated was like going to a polling station to cast my vote. I walked into a drab civic building 10 minutes' walk away from where I live, that I'd never normally go into. Someone friendly said hello and pointed me to a desk, where two friendly people were checking us in. They couldn't find my name for a moment (which always happens when I vote as well), then they found it and they cheerfully pointed me to the next room. A few stalls were set up, and I sat in one. It was a pretty jolly mood in the place overall, possibly because it was the most sociable thing any of the patients there, including me, had done in months.

A nice doctor asked me a couple of questions, did the jab and talked to me for a moment about buses after I told her I worked for Transport for London. I thanked her, she gave me a card, and that was that. I exchanged a couple of words with an elderly chap who was leaving at the same time as me, who'd also had his jab. He was delighted, and so was I.

I find there's something slightly moving about voting. I'm in a room with people who live really close to me, who I never normally see, who are here to do something which on its own seems quite simple - a cross on a bit of paper - which has a massive impact on everything we do. We can do it because we're lucky enough to live in a bit of the world where this sort of thing happens, and whatever you think of politics, the fact we can vote without the risk of getting shot or completely ignored is something that's just not the case for many many people on the planet.

Getting the vaccine is also moving, but even more so. This devastating disease, which has killed so many of our loved ones, stopped us seeing our friends and family, destroyed livelihoods, caused sickness in millions who have survived it, and continues to dominate every day we live at the moment, is finally meeting its match, one person and one vaccine at a time.

I wasn't thinking about being scared of needles or playing it cool when I had my first dose.

I was thinking about the monumental human effort that's gone into developing a new treatment, testing it, making sure it's safe and works, getting it manufactured, shipping it out, putting it in a syringe in the hands of another person I'd never met and was never likely to meet again, and into my arm. I was thinking about the more-than 100 million people before me who had their vaccine worldwide, and the thousands of scientists looking every day at the data from all of those vaccines, to better understand how to treat this disease and get it beaten. I was thinking how lucky I was to be in a position to even have this miracle medicine to teach my immune system what COVID is so I can fight it off and not get sick. I was thinking that getting the vaccine myself means I'm less likely to catch and spread it to my friends and family when I'm allowed to see them again. I was thinking that I'm one tiny part of a nationwide effort to protect myself and everyone around me, to stop COVID spreading in the community. I was thinking that for a while it changes nothing - I'll still wear my mask, I'll still social distance, I'll still clean my hands (though to be fair I'll keep doing that even when this is over). But in a few months' time, it will help to change everything.

If I don't get COVID, I don't pass it on. If I don't pass it on, I don't cause someone else to get sick. If they don't get sick, their families and loved ones may be spared the awful decision of deciding who goes to a socially-distanced funeral, and who has to watch it online. I've had a vaccine that helps me, but will help save other people's lives too. And all I did was roll up my sleeve and chat about buses.

Not bad for a 15 minute appointment.

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