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In Cognito

I had an unexpectedly quiet day today. I had, in my head, held part of the day open for a meeting that wound up being deferred. So, I had only one concrete reason to leave my house – a scheduled visit to donate blood.

Blood donation is a social behaviour I can get quite evangelical about. The downsides, as far as I can see, are tolerable. It does take time out of one’s day, but only once every 56 days. The interrogation process, designed to root out all manner of possible blood-borne cooties, is tedious, irritatingly repetitive, short-sighted and lesbophobic. Or certainly lesbo-blind. One steels oneself to be asked peculiar details about one’s sexual history by a stranger, the RN. Today, when the particularly nervous RN started what felt like her 10th question that began with “Have you had sex with a man who has … ” I interrupted her, as I am wont to do, with “All my sexual partners, for the last 24 years, have been women.” She glanced up from the page momentarily and stammered, “I really DON’T need to know that,” and continued with her questioning about whether or not I’ve recently had sex with a man who has handled monkey fluids. They also want to know if I’ve paid, or been paid, in exchange for sex. I wanted to respond “With or without monkey fluids?” but I held my tongue. We had a bit of a tussle, as we always do, about the details regarding Liberia as a nation in Africa and my unfortunate need to be honest about having had a relationship with a woman who was born there. Many years ago. I can’t help it ~ they ask and I answer. They don’t really seem to care about Liberia, per se, but are very keen to know if she lived “anywhere else” in Africa. This is asked with an edge of mystery to it. Not only did she not live anywhere else in Africa, she wasn’t sexuality active for the period of time she WAS in Africa. But this seems of less interest.

I am aware of Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS) equally blindered policy regarding not allowing gay men to donate but I think my outrage at this stance is a poor reason not to donate when, as the slogan says, I have it in me to do so. We only have one blood service and they need our raw material. I will, and do, find other ways to educate on this matter.

It hurts a bit when the needle goes in, and also when it comes out.

That’s it for downsides, as far as I can see. Time, bizarre scrutiny, an efficient but tunnel-visioned organization, and a needle ouchie.  For this, you get an update on your blood iron, accurate blood pressure and heart rate readings between check-ups, samples of your blood get tested for the afore-mentioned cooties, and you get all the peach juice and Dad’s Oatmeal cookies you can eat afterwards. Today, though, they had a tray of yummy day-old treats from Starbucks, which was a special bonus. It is like a temporary licence to eat sugar.

Oh, and your blood goes to help someone somewhere, once it passes muster. S’all good.

So, with no other business to attend to outside my abode today, I schlepped over to the clinic in my schlepping around the house clothing. Jeans, grey t-shirt with a sort of swirly applique on it (dubbed the tattoo t-shirt by my “personal trainer”), blue flannel shirt (open), and my cool new hockey hat, a sort of skull cap black toque, pulled down over my ears. Blundstone boots. I’m not sure what I looked like but, if asked, the nurses would not have immediately shouted out, “Professor of Business and Technology!” or “Business Consultant!” if they were lined up, Family Feud style, and quizzed about my supposed line of work.  I was “in cognito” or, more accurately, I let my schlep-self come out for some fresh air.

The signals were mixed, though. Blundstones aren’t cheap, although mine are quite “distressed”. I had both a Blackberry and an iPod. My coat gives me away as a non-vegetarian, monied kinda gal. But my coat was in the coat cupboard for most of my visit and I think I came off as an articulate unemployed person with a technology addiction and extraordinary good luck at Goodwill.

While sipping my peach juice in the little lounge area after donating, I was joined by a friendly young man who had just finished donating a few minutes after me. He was seeking some juice and a cookie or two. I directed him to the tray of Starbucks goodies and his eyes lit up. One of the efficient nurse/phlebotomists, Lucy by her name tag, offered to fetch him his juice of choice. She bustled off to pour his juice when he responded “orange”. Lucy bustled, that is the only way to describe her movement. She was a bustler, all around the clinic it seemed. But then, suddenly, all her make-work movements stilled and she came and sat down with us. Friendly Man asked her how long she had to train to become an RPN.  Lucy replied, in an pronounced Chinese accent, “Eight months at private college. But at public college, takes two years.” She nodded wisely. “But … back in China, I am doctor. So I did private college. Could do it fast.” Friendly Man and I looked at each other with a mixture of sorrow, resignation and embarassment. “I’ve just been served peach juice by a highly skilled, underutilized, and underpaid medical professional,” was all I could think for several minutes.

Lucy went on to tell more bits of her story, gently prodded from time to time by Friendly Man. I quietly nibbled my cookies and drank my juice like a little kid in jammies being told a story at bedtime. Lucy shrugs off and accepts the inability of the Canadian govenment to “spend the money” it needs to if foreign-trained professionals are to get certification here. She shrugs and says, “I knew this … my decision to come anyway.” She is actually a fully trained gynecologist and her husband is a hemotologist. In China, you go directly from high school to medical school. “I do not understand … why four years undergraduate here before med school? Waste of time! You smart, you go to med school right away! Get training early. No need for literature or politics before medical school. Waste of time.” This speech was accompanied by many hand gestures.  She then explained that, of eight years in medical school, two years are spent studying Chinese traditional medicine. “This is mandatory, must have both traditional Chinese and Western medicine in China.” So, now, her husband practices Chinese medicine from their home and has clients from all over the province and New York State, some of whom drive hours to see him.  Lucy shrugged and smiled and chewed her gum, “It is better here anyway. It works out.”

There was silence for a while and I drained my second cup of peach juice. This caused the “bustle” switch to be thrown in Lucy and she jumped up. “You want more peach juice?”

“No,” I smiled almost apologetically, “No, this is fine. I should be on my way.” Lucy smiled and thanked me, and Friendly Man, for donating. We both mumbled something. What does one say?

Clearly, I wasn’t the only person in that clinic who was “in cognito” this morning. The difference, as far as I can see, is that I had a choice about which element of myself I would present to the world this morning. Lucy was robbed of some pretty significant options when she arrived here. She claims she came “by choice” but, of course, one wonders how bad it has to be in the country of origin for a person to willingly give up their trained professional qualifications for a new life in a foreign land. The inner peace it must take to be happy with bustling around a blood donor clinic instead of practicing medicine, even when the need is great in many areas of this country, is humbling. And I am reminded that we are all, in some way, each day, in cognito. We choose what we reveal, who we are, in each moment and, in the reality of our complexities as human beings, we highlight different things in different moments, letting other elements fade to shadow, even if only briefly. We can’t possibly reveal all, each moment and in each interaction. Those who try are quickly dismissed as “socially inept”. So we learn what, and how much, to reveal to whom. I can’t help wishing, for Lucy, that she had as much choice as I did this morning about who she could be. I think we’d all be better served by such freedom for her.

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4 comments to “In Cognito”

  1. amazing…I started with laughter and end with tears in my eyes.

  2. When I ruptured my achilles tendon in ’07, the cast technician that changed my casts every few weeks was a doctor back home…I forget now exactly what country he was from, but it was somewhere in the middle east.

    He was more professional, knowledgeable and engaged in what was going on with me than the 2 hospital doctors I saw, who by the way treated him with much disrespect as far as I could see. There is so much wrong with this picture, where does one start?

  3. This particular blog entry is among your best. In my opinion. Not that I’m judging, evaluating or marking your blog entries, of course. 🙂 But, when you eventually ‘audition’ for the Stephen Leacock Award in Humour Writing, I recommend you use this one.

    The part about the pre-donation interview was absolutely wonderful. What makes it so is your honesty, one of the many things about you that I admire.

    The part about Lucy is so great, and very important.

    And all of it is so beautifully written.

    A+ (But of course, I’m not scoring your work)

  4. Beautifully written and very moving, Liz.

    Unfortunately, cancer survivors can neither donate blood nor organs. With more and more people getting cancer, the pool of potential donors gets smaller and smaller. And with Canada continuing to place obstacles in front of foreign-trained medical professionals, the number of people who could care for these patients is far less than it should be.

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