Fear of needles: Curing it takes on special urgency for Bakersfield-raised PhD

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Fear of needles: It’s a common phobia that affects one in four adults and as much as 60 percent of children. It becomes a problem when it keeps people away from doctors’ offices. 

These days, amid a national push for Covid-19 vaccinations, it’s most definitely more than just an incidental hang-up. Fear of needles contributes to vaccine hesitancy.

So says Jody Thomas, a Bakersfield-bred expert who is filling a very real need in the interconnected fields of healthcare and psychology: Empowering families with pain management strategies.   

Her Denver-based Meg Foundation, which has become a go-to source for national media on the subject of needle hesitancy, uses a variety of strategies — from a cartoon superhero for kids to Youtube advice for parents. 

“One of the biggest barriers that we have,” Thomas said, “is that people see that freak out of anxiety around needles as if that’s a necessary evil. It’s just a given, it just has to happen, when in fact it is very much a solvable problem.”

This very strange place we find ourselves today — a worldwide pandemic complicated by widespread vaccine hesitancy — has pushed the issue of needles to the fore of Thomas’s foundation, but pain management is its real focus. And Thomas knows about pain. She opened the book on a life-changing lesson one night in 1992 when she was a teen.

“I was in a really bad car accident,” she said, “and I was in the hospital for a long time and out of school for a couple months.”

She had been driving home from a Junior Miss pageant rehearsal. She endured a punctured lung and two months in the hospital — but recovered well enough to still win the Junior Miss crown. The hospitalization experience — seeing kids dealing with all-encompassing pain — pushed her toward a Ph.D specializing in pain management.

This is at the center of her appeal today: When kids are traumatized by needles — or, more to point, the way adults handle the way they administer immunization shots — it can stay with kids and affect their feelings about doctors and hospitals for a lifetime.

Pain management has a major implication in another current health crisis: fentanyl poisoning, which is often an outgrowth of opioid addiction that starts with treatment for injuries.

Opioid addiction, she said, “goes very dark places. One of the reasons why I think people are interested in this work is because it is connected to  fentanyl.”

Thomas says 10 percent of what we call vaccine hesitancy is actually needle hesitancy. In a country where 140 million people are still not fully vaccinated, that comes to 14 million people potentially denied protection from Covid-19 by their fear of needles. 

“What we’re seeing,” she said, “is that people are faced with some of the biggest medical decisions of their lives and those medical decisions have never had a time in our modern history where they impact all of us.”

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