"In this week's column, I am going to share something very personal," I tell my husband as I begin to write.
"And that would somehow be different from your usual approach?" he responds.
Good point, honey. Not to worry, I won't focus on you this time.
My story starts like this. For the past several weeks, I have been living with my daughter, who has recently become a mom. First in a hospital infant intensive-care setting in Portland and then at their family home.
It has been my honor to serve as a live-in grandma for these first-time parents of an "immune-compromised" babe who still weighs less than 5 pounds and, like all premature infants and newborns, is vulnerable to infection and disease.
There are many things I might say about this situation, but I am choosing to focus on the fact that my hands have never been cleaner.
I have always been a relentless hand-washer. I recognize it is a simple and effective way to stave off a debilitating head/chest cold or protect myself and others against the nasty flu bug that's running rampant in our valley. But lately I have taken relentless to a higher power.
I very regularly place my hands under warm running water and apply loads of friction for 15 to 20 seconds. Soap may not even be necessary, if you use enough friction. You cannot wash your hands too often. (By the way, flu season lasts through the end of March, so you have hundreds of opportunities to practice hand washing as disease prevention in the next few months.)
In a neonatal intensive-care unit, they are obsessive about hand-washing. They supply a hospital-recommended hand cleaner, and their sinks have faucets without handles so you will not recontaminate yourself by turning water on and off. A bob of your head in the right direction turns on water. Numerous signs remind about well-washed hands. Infection control successes are posted everywhere. Babies with incredibly complicated health issues leave this hospital environment and live happily ever after.
One eager new dad was clearly not used to this hand-washing approach and rather halfheartedly washed his hands in the faucet-less sink morning and evening before and after spending time with his son. On the day we took my grandson home, a call came indicating this reluctant-to-wash-dad was sick. Really, really sick. Hospital staff immediately banned him from seeing his high-risk infant son until 24 hours after his final symptom had disappeared. Days? Weeks?
Can you imagine how hard that was for him? Can you imagine how it raised the bar for his future hand-washing practices? It does not have to be this difficult.
So, here I am ... in residence with a tiny, immune-compromised baby. Washing my hands constantly. It's a good thing.
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com