On Friday morning I left Sukkot services early and, lulav bag in hand, got on the bus to the hospital to meet C. and K. for my first Neupogen injection. (K. was the person who called me that very first time in March, and whom I didn't believe.) They shepherded me through a finger stick to test my blood levels, and then we headed to a room down the hall to wait for a nurse. Someone came to take my vitals (how I managed to lose a pound during the holidays is a greater miracle than matching to be a donor), and then A. arrived.
I cannot imagine a better nurse to teach someone known to faint at the sight of blood how to inject herself with a needle, as I would need to do for the second shot. A. looked very much like an actress whose name escapes me: Jamaican, no-nonsense, perpetual smile, drily honest sense of humor. "I gave myself shots seven times a day when I was pregnant," she said. "I'm a nurse, and it was still weird. But you can do it." This was not resounding encouragement. C. handed me a big envelope with the paraphernalia required by both myself and the nurse who would administer the third and fourth shots. He removed the needles, which I was surprised to discover weren't pre-filled. ("We're old fashioned," explained A.) I'd need to stick two of them into two separate vials, and then stick myself twice in the thigh. It was awkward to hold both needle and vial while pushing the plunger, and I had a moment of fear when she explained how to tap it to get rid of air bubbles—wait, isn't that how people commit homicide (at least on House, M.D.)? Thankfully, not a danger in this case. (I probably couldn't even give someone a mild headache with that little needle.) An air bubble would cause a bruise, nothing more.
"Just pretend it's a dart," suggested A., and grabbed a chunk of my thigh to demonstrate. Suddenly the needle was in; I barely felt it. (Never before have I been grateful for the abundance of flesh on my thighs.) I depressed the needle, just a little sting. I got up and filled the next needle, and then sat down on the table and stuck myself. Actually, I stuck myself and immediately pulled out the needle, almost a reflex action. The second try was successful, and I pushed the plunger. This one stung a bit more, since there was more medicine in that vial, but really wasn't bad at all. I think the trick is in not thinking about the fact that you're sticking a really pointy needle into your body.
I looked up and A. was beaming. "Excellent," she said. I felt very proud.
So I went back home with the next three days' worth of drugs and a prescription for Tylenol 3, as well as a goody bag filled with rainbow-colored candy, more Tylenol, a little "Be the Match" lapel pin, a sweet thank-you card signed by everyone at the blood center office with a free movie pass tucked in and, best of all (since it was 2:00PM by then and I hadn't even had breakfast) a big dark chocolate Hershey bar. I ate half, followed by a slightly healthier omelet. K. explained that the anticoagulant administered during the donation would leach my body of calcium, so it wouldn't hurt to beef up beforehand. So I went to the store and treated myself to three kinds of cheese.
Then I waited for the side effects. Some discomfort on Sunday and Monday would be a good indication that the Neupogen had "mobilized," i.e., was doing its job to send my white blood count to the moon. I could expect pain my lower back and sternum, major sites where stem cells grow. Went home, took a nap, then walked to Friday night services and dinner with friends. All was well except for a strange feeling of my feet being very heavy, and I think I was a little dizzy—but that might have been all in my head. I had a lovely evening but was distracted by worrying if and when those symptoms might start, so left early and slept really well.
"Sukkot is a holiday of the body," observed the rabbi at services on Thursday. On the High Holy Days we immerse fully in our spiritual lives to contemplate past and future—but on Sukkot we can actually touch the fruits of those ideas. We grasp and shake the lulav, inhale the aroma of the etrog—in mystical interpretation, representations of the spine, eyes, mouth, and heart—and connect to heaven and earth through a very physical ritual. Another reason why Tuesday, the sixth day of Sukkot, seems like a good time for the donation.
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