Hand Wash? Hogwash!

Picture this: you are invited to someone’s home for dinner. After greeting you warmly at the door, the hostess excuses herself to use the bathroom. You hear the toilet flush and within seconds the bathroom door immediately opens and she exits. Your hostess proceeds to prepare food for dinner – without washing her hands. Would you want to eat her food? Call me picky or unreasonable, but I would suddenly develop food allergies to everything she had touched as an excuse not to put that food in my mouth.

Hand washing seems pretty intuitive. It’s hardly a complicated matter. Our hands get dirty. We wash them. The end. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) bombards us with facts on why we need to wash our hands, and how we should wash our hands. We all know hand washing stops the spread of viruses and nasty infections. We see commercials on TV, advertisements in magazines, and there are even signs in public restrooms reminding employees to soap up before returning to work.

Surprisingly, the basic concept of hand washing is a relatively new tidbit of disease prevention knowledge. While this controversial subject (yes – it was very controversial) took root in 1847, I tend to believe there were people in previous centuries who discovered that washing one’s hands was a good thing. There had to have an English lass in the Middle Ages who found that when she washed her hands after cleaning the family outhouse, that mysterious stomach virus stopped plaguing her household. But since we don’t know the name of that wise maiden, we give credit to the person who first publicly proclaimed the benefits of using soap and water on our hands.

That person was a Hungarian obstetrician named Ignaz Semmelweis. Iggie was working in a Vienna hospital when he noticed something rather peculiar. Women who had their babies delivered by medical students often developed fatal infections after giving birth. Prior to Iggie entering the scene, these deaths were blamed on “an imbalance of humours in the body”. Humours were considered the four chief fluids of the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Basically, humours were regarded as the present day ying and yang of human bodily fluids.

While the rest of the obstetrical staff wrote the deaths off to those pesky humours (remember – this was before the existence of personal injury lawyers), Iggie was less convinced.

“Humours schmumours!” Iggie announced. (Actually, he didn’t. Or maybe he did.)

Iggie knew something more was going on than just the four chief body fluids getting out of whack. He decided to investigate.

Lo and behold, Iggie discovered that prior to delivering babies, the medical students were dissecting cadavers. Now, when I gave birth, my doctor practically put on a hazmat suit. But in 1847, medical students performed autopsies on dead bodies before moseying their way upstairs to the birthing room where they proceeded to deliver babies without washing their hands. Let’s simplify this: medical students had their hands deep inside the open cavities of a dead person before putting their unwashed, (and of course ungloved – they weren’t invented yet) hands deep inside “ladies’ cavities”.

Feeling a bit squirmy, ladies? Me too.

Iggie denounced this practice and mandated that all medical students wash their hands in a chloride lime solution after autopsies and prior to delivering babies. The maternal death rate plummeted.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Because nothing is ever simple (and people have a tendency to be stubborn jerks), the medical staff at the Vienna hospital derided Iggie.

“Have you heard what that Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is proposing?” a Dr. Dorfmeister said while dining over Weiner Schnitzel.

“It’s outrageous!” Dr. Herrmann said, “Pass me a piece of that Gugelhupf, will you? Washing hands after performing autopsies! What’s next? Washing our hands after using the bathroom and coughing?”

“Hahaha. Oh, Dr. Herrmann. You’re such a card!”

The medical staff ridiculed and mocked poor Iggie. Soon he was dismissed from the Vienna hospital. Upon leaving (and the subsequent cessation of hand washing practices) maternal death rates skyrocketed again. But the medical staff continued to blame those darn humours for the women’s deaths, and not the remnants of dead body particles on the hands of medical students.

Iggie was unable to find work in the Vienna community. No one wanted to hire a handwasher. He moved to Budapest, where he continued to tout his hand washing practices. Similar to Vienna, Budapest doctors were not keen on the idea of washing hands in between delivering babies either. They thought it took too much time, and frankly, they would have to admit that all of those deaths were their fault.

Sadly, the continuous rejection of Iggie’s revolutionary discovery took its toll, and eventually he was admitted to a mental hospital where he died shortly thereafter. The benefits of hand washing weren’t accepted until decades after Iggie’s death.

Today, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis is heralded as the pioneer of infection control. Let’s all think of him when we wash our hands later.

New Awareness Months

Awareness months are all the rage. For every month of the year, it seems like one organization or another wants us of to be mindful of a certain illness, social problem, or hobby. Take the month of September, for example. The ninth month of the year is host to prostate, thyroid, and ovarian cancer awareness. August is motorsports, cataract and psoriasis (patches of red, flaky skin) awareness month. October is breast cancer, cholesterol, disability employment, vegetarian and influenza awareness month. Meanwhile November makes us aware of lung cancer, long term care, veganism and Alzheimer’s disease. (Click HERE and HERE for proof.)

There are even months dedicated for animal awareness, with September being National Chicken Month, and March Adopt-A-Rescued-Guinea Pig month. Because February is Pet Dental Health month, we will remember to check our cat and dog’s chompers. (Don’t believe me? CLICK HERE.)

While I understand the calendar is getting full of our need to be aware of so many diseases (and animals), I can’t help but feel that some issues have been neglected. Take Delusions of Grandeur for example. This is the belief that you are more wonderful and powerful than you really are. Meaning, you think you’re great, but others do not. Perhaps if there was a delusions of grandeur month, people would understand why that guy in the office is so obnoxious and self-centered.

April should help make us aware of Asymmetriphobia. This is the pervasive fear of lopsided, uneven things. People who suffer from assymmetriphobia will never be caught wearing mismatched socks. They may also spend a painstakingly long time hanging a picture frame to make sure it’s just right. Asymmetriphobia month would help us be a tad more patient with the family member who spends nine hours decorating a Christmas tree because the ornaments have to be evenly distributed. It might just help one of us to pause a moment and think, “Now wait a second. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep knowing the dishes in my cabinets aren’t evenly stacked!”

Napkin On The Lap month would be huge. Placing your napkin on your lap while eating is not only proper, it saves people from having to see whatever schmutz you just wiped off your face. Putting napkins on laps during meals seems to be a lost etiquette. Let’s make people aware it exists and bring it back, shall we?

Having lived in a neighborhood with dog owners, I know first hand the intense frustration of finding dog doo on my lawn when I don’t even own a dog. Hence, a Pick-Up After Your Dog awareness month is an absolute must. Pet stores could seize this moment by offering discounts on pooper scoopers and waste bags. Additionally, very creative bumper stickers could be designed to inform others this important month exists. (Perhaps, instead of awareness ribbons, there would be awareness dog … well, you know.)

Lastly, the month of February could be Shopping Cart In The Middle Of The Aisle awareness month. What better to pair with Valentines Day than to be mindful of leaving your grocery cart smack dab in the middle of the aisle so it blocks everyone? For twenty-eight days (except for leap year, where it would be a blissful twenty-nine days) we wouldn’t have to say,

“Excuse me? Um … excuse me? But I can’t get by. Would you mind moving your cart over just a bit?”

to the shopper who is ruminating over the prices of competing pasta brands.  (I’ll be honest here – I am one of those really annoying shoppers who gets easily distracted and drifts down the aisle, leaving my cart in everyone’s way.)

Since there is Stress Awareness Month (April), National Asparagus Month (May) and Get To Know an Independent Realtor Month (February), I think Shopping Cart In The Middle Of The Aisle, Delusions of Grandeur, Asymmetriphobia, Pick Up After Your Dog and Napkin On The Lap awareness months could very well be a success.

Life’s Unanswered (Little) Questions

Will there ever be a cure for cancer? ___ and ___, why can’t you just get along? How can we stop climate change?

I could toss and turn all night trying to find the answers to these complex problems. But I don’t (mainly because I would never sleep). Instead, I focus on other – albeit, not as important – situations that drive me equally batty, but at least allow me to get some shuteye.

Why do some men spit while in public? Could someone – anyone –  please explain this gross phenomenon. Does a certain percentage of the male population produce more saliva than others? Are they delusional, and think they’re at the dentist? (Suddenly, they hear a voice say, “Rinse!” forcing them to cough up some phlegm and spew it on the sidewalk.)

Another baffling situation is how children are inconsistently cautious. My son and daughter pick through their meals as though they were health inspectors.

“Ewwww! What is that black spot?”

“Pepper. Now eat your dinner.”

“That’s not pepper! It looks like mold.”

“I don’t serve moldy food. It’s pepper. Eat your dinner.”

“Well, if you say so … wait. What’s this? This red dot?”

Yet they will gladly touch anything and everything in a public restroom. When outside, they poke their fingers into suspicious objects without so much of a hesitation. My son has shoved leaves in his mouth quicker than anything given to him for dinner. But food placed in front of them? Bring out the magnifying glass and Petri dishes, please.

What about this whole LOL business? Are people really Laughing Out Loud? If so, I would think everyone would be chuckling and jolly and smiling all of the time. Yet, all one has to do is spend 10.5 seconds in public to see this is certainly not the case. Why can’t there be a more truthful acronym? Such as SAL (Smiling A Little)?

The last issue I ponder is elderly drivers. I know this seems rather cut and dry: they are old and slow, thus they drive slowly. Yet, these slow driving septuagenarians and octogenarians will make the quickest, most reckless turns into oncoming traffic. Are they attempting to make up for lost time since it took them 30 minutes to drive half a mile? “Good heavens! Look at the time! I should hurry!” and she floors the gas pedal, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left.  Oncoming  cars slam on their breaks, blaring their horns as Edna inches painfully into a parking space.

I struggle to find answers to these conundrums as I prepare dinner for my children to dissect. I mull over them, jumping aside as a man spits out of the corner of his mouth, his saliva landing dangerously close to my feet. And I drum my fingers on my steering wheel, pondering these unanswered little questions, while I inch along behind an elderly man who is en route to his internist.

WTR! (What the Reflux!)

My daughter entered this world the traditional way: with a nice strong epidural and lots of yelling at my husband. I will never forget the moment she was born. She let out a high pitched scream and didn’t stop. My obstetrician paused, looked over at my daughter and said, “Well! There’s nothing wrong with her lungs.” He then pulled off his gloves, tossed them in the garbage, and left to go deliver another baby.

My husband and I looked at one another with raised eyebrows. Even though this was our first baby, we both had a suspicion that if an obstetrician comments on how loud an infant is crying, it can’t possibly be a good sign. We were right. She did not stop screaming. Even the newborn nursery – where I tried to put her so I could sleep – brought her back.

“She can’t stay,” the nurse said cheerfully as she wheeled my crying daughter into my hospital room, “She’s keeping all the other babies awake.”

As I watched the pink-smocked nurse leave, I burst into tears. I didn’t get it. Weren’t babies supposed to sleep? How was I going to sleep with this red faced, screaming little person in my arms? Welcome to parenthood.

The hospital made us take her home. She cried the entire way there. She cried the rest of the day. Then all night. She cried, and cried, and cried. For weeks. And months.

She also vomited excessively. No sooner had I fed her then everything she had taken in would come right back up. Our pediatrician, an angel in the form of a stocky Italian man, was concerned about the weight she was losing. He also wasn’t pleased with her incessant screaming. He diagnosed her with reflux and so our journey began.

My daughter is almost ten now, so most of us are familiar with the term “reflux” being associated with infants. But back in 2003, it was a relatively new concept, and this concept generally did not go over well with the majority of people.

“Reflux? Whoever heard of a baby having reflux? That’s for adults”, “In my day it was called colic”, “How can you medicate a six-week old infant? Aren’t you worried what that will do to her?” “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?”, “Who is your pediatrician?” These were only a few of the comments I heard when I tried to make excuses for why my daughter was so fussy…and didn’t sleep…and why I looked like something out of Night of the Living Dead.

People tried to commiserate with me. “It will get better once she turns three months old.” (It didn’t.) “I know exactly what you’re going through. My son was so colicky when he was born! He didn’t sleep through the night until he was five weeks old!” (Excuse me while I sob.) “Have you tried burping her more?” (Thanks Einstein. Never thought of that.) I found I wanted to kick these people even though they were trying to help.

The word “reflux” became equated with a naughty four letter word in our household. A pacifier was the only thing that would occasionally soothe her, and yet when a well meaning acquaintance told me that her children never used pacifiers (since a good mom should know how to soothe her baby without the use of a pacifier – her words, not mine) I threw it away; Only to drive out to the grocery store late at night to replace it.

I felt inadequate and not up to the task of caring for this puking, crying, squirmy, rashy, insomniac baby. Was I accidentally assigned the wrong daughter? Wasn’t she really supposed to go to a great mom who could handle everything? A mom who makes her own bread and soap and doesn’t own a TV and drives a Prius?

Shortly before her 4th birthday, the doctors discovered that my daughter had a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter. In other words, the muscle that was supposed to tighten around her esophagus to keep her esophagus closed and stomach acids in her stomach was not working at all. The doctors suspected that even though she was on reflux medicines, they would never provide adequate relief. At this point, the only option was surgery.

If the idea of my four year old daughter undergoing major surgery hadn’t freaked me out, I may have felt vindicated. Her reflux had been really bad. I hadn’t been overreacting or wrong to use medicine. She wasn’t sleeping because she was in pain, not because I put her to bed too early or too late, or because she didn’t nap. I had done everything I could, and what I had done had not been wrong.

Six years ago on July 12th my little treasure had a Nissen Fundoplication to correct her reflux. The surgery was four hours long and it seems like just yesterday we were sitting in the OR waiting room of the children’s hospital, watching parents leave because their kid’s surgery was over but my daughter’s was not. When they finally wheeled her out of the OR, she looked so tiny on that big gurney. As I approached her the anesthesiologist put his arm around my shoulders and said, “She did great and you’re doing great.” They were the kindest words I could have heard at that moment.

My daughter opened her eyes and looked around with heavy eyelids. “Mommy,” she mumbled groggily, “Get me out of this thing.”

The nurses placed her in my arms and I rocked her back and forth, knowing that the worst was over. Knowing that when we left the hospital the pain she had always known would finally be gone.

You’re Not So Different From Your Car

Unlike an aged cheddar or bottle of Balvenie, people and automobiles generally don’t improve with age. As my husband once said after visiting my great aunt in a nursing home, 

“There is nothing glamorous about growing old.”

While attending graduate school, I drove an ancient Honda Accord that was held together by a lot of prayer and encouragement. The cassette player would run even when the car was turned off. Rain would get trapped in the moonroof and proceed to gush onto my lap when I put the car in reverse – soaking me to the point where I would have to go inside and change. It also seemed that as soon as I had one of its parts replaced, another would decide to break.

How I hated phone calls from my mechanic! As soon as the phone would ring I would squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself. He always started the conversation with,

“Hullo, it’s Karl, I’ve got some bad news. Your  _____ is shot.”

Your front wheel axle is shot. Your alternator is shot. Your motor mounts are shot. Your master cylinder is shot. Shot. Shot. Shot.

As I age, I have noticed how people are not so different from cars. Our body parts eventually become “shot” – just like my old Honda.  Arthritis is the human form of rust and corrosion. Our hearts – the fuel pump of the human body – stop pumping efficiently. Unless we can afford the services of a cosmetic surgeon (auto body shop) our exteriors become dented, scratched, and faded. Akin to transmission fluid leaking, we need to use the bathroom frequently during the night.

Some men tend to upgrade their cars – going from a practical Ford to a speedy red Porsche. Similarly, some men have the nerve trade in their wife for a newer version. One who doesn’t have dents or scratches. One who is younger, sleeker, and peppier. One who is fresh off the lot.

Ambulances are the human version of flatbed tow trucks. The mechanic – or car doctor – uses terminology we don’t understand. Similar to CAT scans and MRIs, your mechanic will run diagnostic testing that costs a bundle. A new car warranty is the automobile version of health insurance.

Food is our gasoline. The cost of filling a car’s gas tank can be equated to the expense of a large grocery order. Opening the refrigerator and seeing its bare shelves has the same feeling of frustration as noticing your gas light is on.

Cars are also like people in that there are big ones and small ones. Black ones and white ones. There are high maintenance, complicated people (Mercedes) and low maintenance, easy going people (Toyotas). There are people born in this country (Ford, GM) and people who immigrate from Europe (BMW, Lamborghini) and Asia (Mazda). Lastly, some people would rather avoid the snow (front-wheel drive cars) while others enjoy winter sports (the 4×4).

Thankfully,  that is where our similarities end. When a car reaches the end of its lifespan, it is sent to a scrapyard and crushed. When we reach the end of our lifespan, we are put in an overpriced box and buried in the ground.

It is unfortunate that cars and people don’t age as gracefully as say, a bottle of wine or a Redwood tree. But a bottle of wine and Redwood tree won’t drive your family on vacation or share the memories of their childhood.

The Waiting Room Zoo

At a recent doctor’s appointment, I was struck by the similarities between a doctor’s waiting room and a zoo. I’m not using the word “zoo” to describe craziness or disorder.  (“Whoa. It’s a zoo in there!”)  I’m using it literally: as in the zoo you visit with your kids and end up spending way too much money just to watch some strange animals sleep.

When you enter a doctor’s waiting room, the receptionist is sitting behind a glass shield. This is similar to a cage – only more civilized.  You stand at the glass, hoping she notices you (she usually doesn’t).  If you tap on the glass, she simply ignores you as though you are the hundredth person that day who has tapped on her cage.  When at last you are acknowledged, you hand over your co-pay. This is your “admission ticket” into the zoo.

As you survey the waiting room in your attempt to find a chair that is the farthest away from anyone else, you can’t help but notice the chattering monkey.  This is the person who talks non-stop on their cellphone. They are often very loud and seem to have no qualms about the world knowing their personal business.  The chattering monkey certainly doesn’t seem sick, and you wonder why they are even there in the first place.  Once the phone call has ended, the chattering monkey calls someone else or turns to the nearest person and initiates a conversation.

Sloths are another common inhabitant of the physician waiting room. Without fail, this person falls into such a deep sleep you wonder if he has mistaken the waiting room chair for his couch at home.  The sloth awakens every now and then, only to glance around the waiting room with heavy eyelids before nodding back off to sleep.

In the middle of the waiting room is the owl.  This person looks around the room with large, wide eyes.  She will watch as you check in with the receptionist, as you select a magazine, and when you look at your cellphone.  God forbid you cough or sneeze, her eyes grow even bigger.  She also has the unique ability to turn her head almost 360 degrees to look at the people sitting behind her.

At last your name is called!  It is your turn to see the doctor, who is the Siberian white tiger of this zoo-like experience.  The Siberian white tiger is the reason why we are here. Comparable to a Siberian white tiger, the doctor is also endangered: There are so few of them and so many of us.  And just like the Siberian white tiger exhibit at the zoo: we can only see the doctor for a limited time.

When the Siberian white tiger enters the examining room, he seems disinterested and bored.  You are simply one of many who have waited to see him. Your sore throat and nagging cough that you felt was so important?  Not to the Siberian white tiger. There is a true sense of disappointment, and you can’t help but feel a bit gypped.  You paid $25 for this?  That 30 minute wait was for nothing more than a 4 minute viewing of the Siberian white tiger.  As you leave the Siberian white tiger exhibit, you find you feel a little sulky.

You are eager to return home, and as you leave you notice the waiting room has filled with more animals.  You silently thank God your turn is over, not knowing that you’ll be returning in a few days because you are now harboring all of the germs that were festering on the waiting room magazine you pretended to read.  But when you return, you won’t be able to see the Siberian white tiger. Heck, no! That exhibit is sold out.  Instead, you’ll have to settle for the red panda – otherwise known as the nurse practitioner.