The Blood-Drawing Station

On Life and Love After 50 eNewsletter –  December 4, 2020

by Columnist Thomas P Blake

There are two parts to today’s eNewsletter

                              Part One – The Blood-Drawing Station   

“Why am I here?” I thought to myself at 6.47 a.m. on Tuesday when I opened the car door in a Mission Viejo parking garage. With the pandemic kicking up its ugly heels again, aren’t people supposed to be extra careful when venturing out? The health experts are urging us to stay home as much as possible.

And the last place we should be voluntarily visiting is a medical facility. But the sign on the five-story building where I’m going says Mission Medical Plaza. I wouldn’t call it a medical plaza; a medical center is more like it. And I’m here voluntarily.

I am having my blood drawn. I’m supposed to do this every six months for a routine health exam, but due to the pandemic, I postponed my June 2020 visit. My doctor recently texted me saying I was six months past due and encouraged me to come in to see how my body was holding up.

I figured by arriving before 7 a.m. I’d be one of the first persons there so I wouldn’t have to wait long. Holy cow, as I entered the drawing station, there were five men and three women wearing masks who had already signed in on the front-desk clipboard, sitting in socially-distanced chairs waiting to be summoned to the front desk to sign paperwork.

I’m guessing the average age was 65-plus, so I fit in.

I entered my name on the clipboard and took the last available chair.

One man had a USC (University of Southern California) face mask on. Another man approached him and they started talking about college football. The USC guy said, “I’m here because I played football for 25 years; my knees are screwed up.”

The other man said he had played football as well, but I couldn’t hear where he said he had played.

A few minutes later, I started a conversation with the USC man by saying,

“I had a buddy who played for SC. You probably have heard of him.”

About then, the man was called into the blood-drawing room.

“What was his name?” he asked as he walked away.  

“Lynn Swann,” I said. He turned around and gave me a thumbs up.

I got to know Lynn in 1973 when I worked at the Victoria Station restaurant chain. Our company presented him with a college football player-of-the-year award we had created as a kind of a publicity ploy.

 Lynn Swann at the 1973 USC Awards Banquet with MVP trophy                                             and Victoria Station award

                                                                                  Photo: USC Sports Info

I had dinner with Lynn on the night of the day he was drafted in the first round of the 1974 NFL draft.

Lynn was an All-American at USC and went on to win four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was MVP of the Super Bowl in 1976, and later became the athletic director of USC for a few years.

Another guy sitting in the waiting room was wearing an “Ohio State” sweatshirt. Oh wow, a dreaded Buckeye, particularly for me, a Michigan Wolverine. UM hasn’t beaten Ohio State in football in 10 years. I was glad I wasn’t wearing any UM clothing as we’ve had an embarrassing year with a record of two wins and four losses. And those Buckeye fans love to tease Wolverine fans.

Just a few days earlier in Costco, I had a golf shirt with a big Michigan block “M” on the front pocket and a guy from Wisconsin walked up to me and said, “Tough year, eh?” He wasn’t referring to the pandemic.

One woman who came into the drawing station a bit later was wearing a UCLA sweatshirt. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her about football, or anything else.

When people are summoned to the front desk to sign the paperwork, they are asked a couple of questions.

“Are you fasting today?” is the first question.

In all my visits here, I’ve never heard anyone say “no” to that question.

And then the second question:

“What is your date of birth?”

That one people seem to dread. When they answer, some lower their voices, hoping no one in the waiting room will hear their response and learn their age.

I respond by giving my DOB and then add, in a whisper with a wink, “But don’t tell anyone.”

Sometimes I try to guess how old a guy is before I hear his answer. I’m often off by 10 years or more.

My name was called by the guy who would be drawing my blood. He said, “Follow me” and led me into the blood-drawing room. I recognized him as the same guy from 12 months before. I doubt if he remembered me as I guessed he had probably drawn blood from more than 2,000 people since then. He was wearing a mask, face shield and gloves, of course. The room was spotless.

I always brace for the needle going into the arm and look the other way. But I didn’t even feel it. He was very professional and quick.

I thought I was finished. I was—almost–but not before the guy handed me an orange biohazard bag—for the collection of, umm, how do I put this delicately?—well let’s just say you collect what goes into the bag in the bathroom at home and then return it to the drawing station at a later time.

And then he emphatically added. “When you return the bag, ensure it is sealed. Do not hand it to the people behind the desk. They don’t like to be handed a bag of poop. Ask them where the box is in which to deposit the bag.”

His advice sure made sense to me. I walked through the waiting room, trying to disguise the bag he had given me.

As I walked to the car, at 7:20, I thought about all the workers in the medical field who every day are putting their lives at risk so that the rest of us can do our best to stay healthy. Front-liners and first-responders are amazing human beings. I had seen a bunch of them in that medical building that morning and thanked them. They seemed to appreciate that.

And I also thought that the drawing station was a good place to get out and chat up some new people and socialize, albeit a quick in and out. One never knows who you’re going to meet there.

But I was happy to be returning home—even with the bag in hand–to finally get a cup of hot coffee and a bit of breakfast.

Part 2 – The reality of life – and reflecting on a hero

Rafer Johnson died at age 86 on Wednesday. He was an incredible person. Great athlete. Great humanitarian. In 1960, at the Rome Olympics, my buddies and I were in the stands at Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, September 6, and watched him win the decathlon. As I recall, it was about 10 p.m.

To win, Rafer had to stay within 10 yards of C.K. Yang, Rafer’s UCLA teammate who represented Taiwan, in the decathlon-1500-meter race. The race was Rafer’s weakest event of the 10 decathlon events but with guts and grit, he finished one and a half yards behind Yang to win the gold medal.

I checked the journal I kept from that 1960, 84-day European trip. The Cold War with Russia was hot. In addition to the decathlon that day, we watched the USA’s Ira Davis get beat out for a silver medal by a Russian on the last jump in the triple-jump event (my track coach called it the Hop, Step, and Jump.)

Rafer, who had been watching nearby, immediately went to the Russian and tried to congratulate him by shaking hands, but the Russian refused. I wrote in the journal, “People in the stadium booed the Russian entirely too much. The Russian left the field crying.”

And one more item from that day. Australian Herb Elliott set a world record in the 1500-meter event at 3:35.6 seconds. That record stood for seven years.

The next day, Wednesday, September 7, my buddies and I were at the Olympic Village, where the athletes stayed. We had purchased tickets to fly home on the Olympic team charter airplane and were waiting there to board the bus to the airport. I had a Coca Cola with Rafer. He was such a humble man, he barely acknowledged his victory from the night before.

And now, 60-years-later, Rafer Johnson, the legend is gone.

Author: Tom Blake

Tom Blake is a newspaper columnist in south Orange County, California. He has published five books. His primary topic is finding love after 50 and beyond, sometimes far beyond, for people 80 and older as well. He also blogs about travel at

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