Clean hands could save your life

    I have a gift for you. It’s a story about hand washing. It just might save your life.

    Prior to the mid-1800s, hand washing was not only ignored, it was soundly ridiculed. A young Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis (later referred to as the “father of antiseptic procedures”), protested loudly in favor of cleanliness, placing particular emphasis on the importance of hand washing in hospital settings.

    Remarkably the concept continued to be rejected by the public and physician colleagues. Ultimately Dr. Semmelweis was dismissed from hospital employment because of his unwavering position that hands must be well washed prior to performing any procedure. Undeterred, he continued to advocate loudly for hand washing (with a chlorinated lime solution), and public and professional reaction continued to be dismissive. In fact, his ideas were so resoundingly rejected that he was declared insane and committed to a mental asylum. (Honest, I got this from a very reliable source.)

    Today’s physicians and surgeons would probably have their mental status questioned if they did not adhere to hand-washing protocols. Here’s a case in point. At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, every department in the hospital reportedly has a “hand-washing monitor,” someone who conducts “passive surveillance and measures adherence to hand hygiene standards.” In fact, that kind of monitoring is increasingly present in any well run hospital environment.

    History has numerous examples of epidemics caused by diseases that could have been prevented by better hand washing. Historians with a health bent will passionately argue that empires have been destroyed by infectious disease. And infection control is part of what explains the dramatic increases in life expectancy in the last several decades.

    As older adults, we are in particular need of hand-washing rigor. As we age, we are more vulnerable to infection. Our immune systems are more easily impacted by bacteria from something we have touched or someone who has touched us. We have the potential to become ill more easily than we did as young and middle-aged adults, and we may not display the typical signs of infection (such as a high fever) until we become seriously ill.

    Here’s one of the simple but powerful infection control suggestions. If you find yourself, or someone you love, in a hospital setting, ask all hospital staff treating you, and ask any visitors to your hospital room, to wash their hands (15 to 20 seconds, with soap, warm water and lots of friction). Request they do that before touching you (hugs included). I know, it seems excessive, and you may be reluctant or even unable to make that request. But maybe someone who cares about you could just place a little sign by your hospital bed asking that everyone do this — put a little happy face on the sign.

    I think you can expect your health providers will wash often and well. But you may need to remind them. (And again, smile when you do that.) For those loving, nonmedical types who hover nearby when you’re ill and provide comfort and support, don’t hesitate. Prompting friends and family to get used to washing well might give them a better chance of staying infection-free when it’s their turn to be hospitalized.

    — Sharon Johnson is executive director of Age-Friendly Innovators Inc. Reach her at

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