At the sharp end

“THIS WON’T HURT A BIT” are words that I never used when I was practising as a dentist. However careful and gentle one is when giving an injection, the recipient is bound to feel at least a tiny bit of discomfort. So, I never uttered those words because to do so would be telling the patient something untruthful and that would have risked undermining his or her confidence in me. So, today, when I went to our beautifully well organised local clinic (at St Charles Hospital in London’s North Kensington) to receive the first of my vaccination ‘jabs’ to protect me from covid19, I was pleased that the clinician, who administered it did not say those words which I always avoided, but instead told me that I might experience some discomfort. Despite the needle being of a larger gauge than usual, my jab was not at all painful.

Years ago, a friend of mine, ‘X’, who was married to ‘Y’, a medical doctor involved in biological research, related her experiences of receiving vaccinations and other injections. Until she went into hospital to have her first child, she had always been given injections at home by her husband.

On arrival at the hospital, X was terrified when she was told she needed an injection. However, after it was done, her fears evaporated, but was left with a question in her mind. After she returned home with her baby, she asked her husband the question that had occurred to her in hospital. She said to Y:

“It’s really strange, dear, but the injections I had in hospital were completely painless unlike those you give me. I wonder why that should be.”

Y did not answer immediately, but after a short while, said:

“That’s easy to explain. I always inject you with the type of needles that I use for injecting, or taking samples from, experimental animals, the rats and so on.”

It is no wonder my friend found her husband’s injections painful. The syringe needles he used for laboratory animals were of a much wider bore than those normally used for administering jabs to humans. They were wide enough to be cleaned by pushing a wire along their length prior to sterilizing them.

This reminded me of the somewhat painful injections that our family doctor, Dr C, gave us when we were children in the early 1960s and before. Even though this was long ago, I can remember that his surgery had a gas fire, and its gas pipe had a small branch that fed a burner that heated a container in which he boiled his glass syringes and reusable needles between patients. These needles, like those used on animals and my friend, X, had to be wide so that they could be reamed out prior to being boiled. Furthermore, repeated boiling in water, blunted the needles and made them increasingly likely to cause pain when penetrating the skin. It was lucky that when we were vaccinated as kids, we did not come away with some infection as bad as whatever we were being protected against. There was no HIV in the 1960s, but there were other bugs, which were certainly not inactivated by boiling water.

Today, at the vaccination centre, a beautifully laid-out facility in a Victorian hospital building, I was shown the wrapped disposable syringe and needle, and felt confident that the vaccinator at St Charles had done a good job of jabbing.