Common Sense

A young dad and his son take a break in an airport bathroom to take care of business, as it were. As they are leaving the bathroom, dad dutifully calls out to his son, “Don’t forget to wash your hands.” His son, excited about their travel and eager to get back to mom and all the activity outside, exclaims, “But Dad, my hands are clean.” He holds them up and continues, “I didn’t get anything on them.” Dad, calm, wise, and astute in his early 20s, gently takes his son by the hand and walks him over to the sink. You could hear him impart his common sense and help his son understand manners, hygiene, and the ability to believe in things you can’t see.

At the sink, the dad took his son by the hands; rinsed them gently; applied a little soap; and, as he did so, passed on this timeless wisdom: “You see, Ryan,” he began, “sometimes things get on our hands that we can’t even see. Most of the time those things don’t hurt us at all. But sometimes there are invisible things on our hands called germs, and germs can come from all kinds of things we touch and play with all day long. Sometimes these germs can get into our system and make us sick. But also, we can share these germs with others if we’re not careful and wash our hands any time we think they might be dirty and especially after we use the bathroom. You see, no good friend would ever touch the hands of another good friend unless he knew his hands were clean.”

This was a world-class dad, a beautiful young man, and a tremendous lesson for us all.

Everyone knows that hygiene, especially after using the bathroom, is critical to good health and good manners. It might seem odd, but we have learned this lesson over and over throughout history. For example, as things started to get better for people in the 17th and 18th centuries, more and more children were being born in hospitals. One might think this would be a good thing, but often it was just the opposite. Doctors who were unaware back then of the germs that our young Ryan was being taught about often went from patient to patient without washing their hands. The condition known as puerperal fever was rampant during those early days, and many women, including the mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, died from this condition.

A few doctors, notably Thomas Watson in 1842 and Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847, tried to encourage their fellow doctors and even ordered them to wash between births. And although locally they were able to lower the rate of infection and subsequent death by infection after childbirth, their admonitions were largely ignored by the rest of the medical community. With the discovery of germs and the subsequent knowledge of how quickly they can be spread, modern hospitals now ensure that hands are washed, gloves are used, and infection and germs and their transmission are closely guarded.

But handwashing remained in many places an interestingly unappreciated activity. Fast forward to 2004: A young Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worker, Stephen Luby, arrived in Karachi, Pakistan. Karachi was experiencing an incredibly high child mortality rate. Many factors were involved such as terrible hygiene, poor living conditions, malnutrition, and contaminated drinking water. Many of the children there were dying before the age of five from diarrhea or acute respiratory infections.

Luby had a brilliant insight brought on by a serendipitous coincidence. He learned that Procter & Gamble wanted to highlight the effectiveness and advantages of its new antibacterial soap. So, he proposed to the company a program whereby it would issue regular Procter & Gamble soap to some of the residents of Karachi and antibacterial soap to some of the others. Instructions included to wash regularly but especially after using the bathroom. What was amazing was that diarrhea was cut in half for the children regardless of which soap they used. Other infections such as pneumonia and skin infections also decreased correspondingly, simply by getting people to wash.

Our good friend Dr. Gavin Horn recently shared some fascinating information with us about our gloves. All firefighters understand the challenges in washing our gloves and so, quite often, we don’t. Gavin pointed out that we may want to reconsider that position. His studies have found that things you can’t see – contaminants – are being transferred through your highly contaminated gloves to you and others. Gavin shared that our gloves are often far more contaminated than our bunker gear, “10 to 1,000 times higher!” For you nonmath majors, that’s “huge.” To quote Dr. Horn, “It is important to clean your gloves as regularly as or more than any of the other pieces of equipment firefighters wear.”

And beneath those gloves lurk your hands. We have been talking a lot lately about the exposures of our necks and the areas beneath our hoods. Now, like Ryan’s dad told young Ryan, we need to really focus on washing our hands. Much like our doctor friends in the 17th century, our hands communicate with every other part of our bodies and can spread contaminants and disease. Dr. Horn shared this piece of common sense: “We need to be as rigorous cleaning our hands as we are cleaning our face and neck … and just as rapid.”

It’s time we began diligently washing our hands. On scene, use soap, use dishwashing liquid, use commercially purchased wipes, use something. Imagine if we could cut contamination numbers in half like Karachi. Ryan’s dad was right. Washing your hands is good manners; it is good hygiene; and, in the case of firefighters, it’s a matter of life and death. It is common sense.

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