My arm has often felt like a pincushion. A good example of this was during the SARS epidemic in 2002, when both myself and severe acute respiratory syndrome were at work in Hong Kong at the same time. Not that Hong Kong was at fault particularly — the outbreak was first identified in Foshan in China, and thought to have originated in an animal market where you could buy everything from civets and snakes to rabbits and pheasants. No change there.
Despite having to wear a mask while attempting to teach English as a foreign (or muffled) language, I persevered and survived, and my only acute breathing was as I plodded up five flights of stairs to where the victims of my teaching were similarly masked.
As I was finally beginning to recognise the faces of my Chinese students, their faces disappeared. I was left floundering between John Chen, Jane Chan and Jack Chin. Although Cliff Kwok and Ringo Guok were more memorable to someone of my age group. Ditto Evita Wong.
When the doctor inoculating me against SARS said his vaccine was “based on the ferret model,” I was lost for words, not the best thing in my profession. I did have to stifle a yelp, though, as the needle was plunged into my arm, and I briefly felt sympathy for the ferret guinea pigs.
My arm was younger and more sensitive in those days; nowadays (at 74) the nurse has to coax a vein to the surface any time I get a blood test.
Traditionally, I always offered my left arm when asked to choose a limb for injections, preferring to safeguard my right hand for holding a glass of Chablis, or even — ironically — a bottle of Corona lager. (‘A refreshing bitterness’ was one of its advertising slogans.)
Before departing for the Middle East in 1976, I had to undergo a sinister 3-in-1 injection known as TAB, sinister because it supposedly produced immunity against typhoid and two types of paratyphoid. I began to wonder about where I was headed. The immediate effect of TAB was that I couldn’t raise my hand to the gear stick of my hired car and had to pay for a taxi to the airport. That hurt almost as much as the anti-typhoid jab.
But not as much as the mandatory booster shots in various far-flung locations over the years, when my arm was sometimes faced with blunderbuss-like needles that would have been decommissioned in many countries as blunt instruments.
I no longer smile when I recall the exam answer of a Chinese student regarding drug use : “Don’t ever share dirty noodles, Mr Aitken.” The only memory that ever matched that was an orderly in an Emirates hospital introducing himself as he stabbed repeatedly at my upper arm: “I am Jabr Ali, Mr David.” (“Make that Ali Jabber,” Mr David felt like saying.)
But the latest news is all good. My recent trip to hospital was a painless triumph of modern medicine. As I was leaving the premises, another masked man greeted me with a victory signal. V for vaccination, I thought. Gain without pain. Roll on the next one.