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When Routine Lab Work Is Anything but Routine

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

I got over my fear of needles, but not of having my own urine spilled on me

Getting any sort of lab work done is no picnic. Once you hit your 20s, it’s hard to avoid regular blood tests, urine samples and Pap smears and really, you shouldn’t. These are important diagnostic tools that keep us healthy and help doctors figure out if something is wrong.

But that doesn’t mean you have to look forward to them. Let’s assume that you don’t have a crippling fear of needles and move on to all the other fun aspects of this routine part of our medical maintenance.

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First, it’s uncomfortable and awkward. No, peeing in a tiny plastic cup isn’t painful (if it is, see your doctor right away) but for those of us without a penis, it’s not that easy. You have angling to worry about coupled with an “away” toilet situation and making sure that you’ve had enough liquids for a sample, but not so much that you couldn’t hold it and ended up having to make a pit stop at a gas station bathroom on the way to the clinic. Then once you have the actual sample, you then have the opportunity to hand a cup of your still-warm urine to a lab technician who isn’t any happier about this arrangement than you are.

Blood work is a little better (again, minus the needles) but you have to contend with challenges like where to look when the nurse inserts the needle, how hard to clench your fist and what kind of conversation, if any, you should be having with the person drawing your blood.

And Pap smears — well, there’s really no way to make those any better — and they can be downright painful.

For some people, these routine procedures are just matter of taking a few minutes out of their day in the name of preventative health. But for others — myself included — there’s no such thing as a simple trip to the lab.

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I, Cup

I was about to start a new job and had to have a drug test for the first time in my life. For some reason, I was instructed to go to a clinic nowhere near where I was living (despite several being much closer), as well as to come with a full bladder. I followed the directions and more than sufficiently hydrated on the trip over.

When it was finally time to provide the urine sample, everything went off without a hitch — that is, until I stepped out of the bathroom. All that water had worked its magic and I had quite the specimen to hand over.

I asked the lab technician if there was some sort of lid for the container and as she answered my question, she gestured toward the supply cabinet, knocking my sample out of my hand and all over my clothes. For a second we both just stood there, staring at each other. Her eyes grew wide and I wasn’t sure if she was about to laugh or cry. I laughed, and she apologized profusely.

Instead of going straight to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner, I had to make a detour home to change clothes. Everyone was fine with me being a little late.

Floor cells

Several years ago, I was living in Ireland and got a letter from the country’s health service saying that I was eligible for a free Pap smear. Never one to pass up free health screenings, I made an appointment, smug in the fact that I was being responsible while someone else was paying for it.

I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details for this one. When it was over, I exhaled, relieved that the unpleasant experience was over, when I heard “oh dear” ominously come from other side of the stirrups containing my legs.

“You didn’t spill the sample, right?” I asked.

I should have known better than to joke about this.

“Well, Elizabeth,” she said sighing, “I’m afraid your cervical cells are all over the floor instead of in this vial.”

I asked if she was kidding. She was not.

When she went in a second time I started to bleed. When the doctor got what she came for she immediately sealed the vial and told me that in addition to whatever I had planned on drinking that evening, I had her permission to add two pints to that.

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Bloody hell

Recently I had to get a blood test as part of a physical. Naturally, this was the nurse’s first (unsupervised) time drawing blood — something that he didn’t necessarily need to disclose. After being unable to locate a suitable vein on my left arm, he moved on to my right and eventually struck blood.

Except that’s exactly what happened: he struck the vein in a way that blood came spraying out like a lawn sprinkler, all over both of us. He couldn’t have been any nicer about it and looked like he wanted to wrap himself up in the hospital curtain around the examination table and hide forever.

I burst out laughing and proceeded to tell him about my experiences with my urine sample and Pap smear, and told him that I’d much prefer to be splattered in a comparably smaller amount of blood than urine.

“In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have any specimens spilled on you,” he replied, adding “now you’re going to have to include me the next time you tell someone about bad lab experiences.”

He was correct on both counts.

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