I stared at the hole in my glove in disbelief. Did it really happen? Had I really felt it? I wanted to pretend that it hadn’t happened, that I wasn’t actually going to have to go through the whole thing, but the hole, less than half a millimeter in diameter, put lie to any thoughts of denial. You felt it, bub, my glove told me. You felt the thing go in. You know you did. Calmly, I put the jacket down in a safe place and backed away from it.
“What’s wrong?” M. said to me, looking at my face.
“I just got poked by something,” I said. All activity stopped.
She stared hard. “What?”
“In this guy’s jacket. I just got poked by something sharp — a needle, I’m guessing.” We looked over at the guy on the stretcher, writhing. We all knew what it meant: 22, male, no fixed address, injecting drug user, known hepatitis C carrier.. No one needed to say what was going through all our minds, mine most of all. SHIT.
I tore the glove off and looked at my index finger, where the needle had gone in. No blood visible — that’s good, we’re probably not into the dermis. I wiped it with an alcohol swab, then walked over to the sink and calmly scrubbed for what felt like ten minutes, getting as much water flowing over the poke site as possible. How the hell could you be so stupid? my inside voice wanted to know. How in the name of all merciful fuck could you have been so goddamn stupid? Well, for starters, I wasn’t being stupid. I was lifting the thing up, gingerly, conscious of the risk — something swung over and pricked me. The only way this gets any safer is if I use tools. It wasn’t like I was going through his pockets or anything.
Thus began another odyssey for me in the emergency department as a patient, a process which involved a great deal of trying to calm down, do work, and be assessed at the same time. I watched as the Protective Services guys went through the joker’s jacket just as gingerly as I had lifted it up, only they wore leather gloves lined with Spectra aramid. “Lookit this,” one of them said, holding up an open five inch switchblade with a very sharp-looking point. “Don’t suppose this is what got you, eh?”
“I won’t be that lucky,” I said, eying what could only be insulin syringes by their orange caps and slender barrels. “Please tell me there aren’t any uncapped sharps in there.” It looked good for a minute or two, and then the guy pulled one out, the needle glinting in the harsh light of the trauma room. “Fuck.”
“Yeah.” I took a close look at it. Was there blood on it? I couldn’t tell. How long ago had it been used? I didn’t know. I did know the seroconversion rate for HCV is 1.5-3.8% for all comers, that the conversion is associated with deep sticks from blood-filled hollow needles, and that neither of those things appeared to have happened. I knew that HCV has a tough time living outside the body on metal surfaces, but I also knew that it was the second time in as many weeks that I was facing a personal health concern because of something that had happened at work. Last week it had been the guy who ultimately died of pneumococcus and I was the one who was doing airway stuff and might have caught a facefull of particulate; this week, it was different, and yet it was the same. Known exposure, rather than possible. Guy known to carry bad shit, rather than theorized. And in both cases, someone who had something I didn’t want.
R. did the workup. We sat at the desk and did it, me burying my head in my hands and he clucking about it. I can’t remember whether I was more upset about what had happened, or that it had happened at all. I’d never had a needlestick before, of course, though I had managed to stab myself once when I was young and stupid while trying to draw something up (I aimed wrong and missed the vial, instead plunging a 25g into my thenar eminence up to the hub — now I stab into a bottle on a hard surface). R. wasn’t too worried, and in truth, neither was I: Six months of blood tests for anti-HCV, titre check on my HBV antibodies, boosters for HBV as required (they’re not), update my tetanus. Source test the guy who owned the sharp for HBV, HCV, HIV. I’m not worried about the HIV. It’s the hepatitis that scares me.
Twelve hours later, I was in my doctor’s office, explaining my tale of woe. J. smiled, ordered the requisite tests, and sent me on my way. “I don’t need to counsel you,” he said by way of asking as I left, “on the options if you do end up testing positive for HIV, do I?”
I shook my head. “Oh, god no. Because I’m not going to test positive,” I said. And I’m not. The odds are vanishingly small. Almost non-existent. It’s not gonna happen. No way, no how.
It could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse. That it wasn’t is a testament to luck and the fact that I am so damn paranoid about sharps. I’ll be fine. I believe it. Just pisses me off it’s going to take six months before I know it.