I’m relatively certain the first skill I learned in nursing school was how (and why) to wash my hands.
- Remove rings and watch
- Turn on warm water.
- Lather hands with soap.
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds—palms, back of hands, fingers, between fingers, under fingernails, wrists. The soap passes through the oil surrounding germ molecules and breaks down the germs.
- Rinse hands with fingers pointing up so water, carrying the destroyed germs, flows away from your freshly-washed hands.
- Dry hands thoroughly with a paper towel.
- After drying, use paper towel to turn off faucets.
- Discard paper towel in garbage, ideally a can with a lid.
- Apply lotion to protect your skin from cracking, creating a way for germs to enter your body.
The second skill was how to give a soothing backrub to patients after a bed bath. The first day I was assigned a patient in the hospital, I needed to bathe her—followed by the backrub—and clean her dentures. That day, in my first week of nursing school, was an eye opener for me. I was glad to know how to wash my hands. I’d soon discover there were many more nursing care activities that involved contact with a variety of bodily fluids.
Hooray for handwashing!
As I described in my previous post, I became a zealot for handwashing; I remain so to this day.
While COVID-19 is a complex, illness-causing, easily-transmitted virus, there’s some comfort in discovering it doesn’t survive handwashing and other standard hygiene practices. Sure, this virus is outwitting public health officials and health care providers in unprecedented ways. But those handwashing steps I learned in 1971? They’re as appropriate today as they were then and all the way back to ancient times.
And the silver lining? I’m looking for it wherever I can to help sustain me through these extraordinary times. I’ve recently realized there’s a bit of it right in my own home.
I worked for a home health agency. My black nursing bag included a small, plastic bottle of liquid soap; paper towels; and a waterproof barrier to set them on. I also had a stash of newspapers, pre-cut and folded so I could make them into mini-waste baskets for soiled items. You can probably imagine how important it was to wash hands upon arrival and before departing from patients’ homes, many of which didn’t have ideal facilities.
Early in our marriage, I discovered the “Naked Hiker” wasn’t big on handwashing. I cajoled, demonstrated, instructed, and begged. And when he did wash, he typically spent all of five to ten seconds for the entire procedure, sometimes minus soap.
His technique improved considerably in the early 1980s. He had become a sign language interpreter (as well as a father of twins) and interpreted for deaf students in a community college culinary arts program. He looked a bit pale one day when he returned home from work.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, a few beads of perspiration on his forehead. “You know I’m interpreting in the food safety class this quarter.”
“Today they had a guest lecturer. A sanitarian from the health department who works with foodborne illnesses.”
“She told us some pretty gnarly stories about how food can get contaminated.”
“You were right about handwashing. Especially with all the diaper-changing we do.”
I promise, I didn’t say anything aloud, but I did flash a big smile.
Those babies are now in their late thirties and the “Naked Hiker” hasn’t interpreted any food safety classes since then. Over the years, he’s slacked off a bit on his handwashing.
Today, he said the sweetest words. “Just a minute, I can’t hear you because I’m washing my hands.”
We’re all becoming experts at handwashing, disinfecting, covering our coughs and sneezes in our elbows, and replacing handshakes with elbow bumps. If we can just keep following those practices after COVID-19 abates, we’ll all be healthier. That would be a gift to everyone.
If you’re still not convinced, check out this video that explains how soap annihilates COVID-19.
Oh, and if you’re tired of singing “Happy Birthday to You” (twice) to time your handwashing, here are some new lyrics for the tune, courtesy of Kim Stafford, Oregon poet laureate.