Changing habits

Several years ago our son was working as a hospital librarian and became involved in a project of making training videos for the hospital. He has a delightful sense of humor and used it in a brief video about hand washing. Washing hands is very important in a hospital setting, where infection control is critical. The video didn’t go into the details of how to wash hands, it assumed that the people who watched it would know how to properly wash their hands. Initial training for doctors and nurses and other medical personnel is quite thorough. The problem in a hospital setting is not that people don’t know how to wash their hands. It really isn’t that they don’t remember to wash their hands. Hospitals have signs and hand washing stations all around. Most have alcohol-based hand sanitizer available at the doorway of every patient care room.The problem in a hospital is an employee who washes her or his hands frequently and is conscientious, but on a single occasion becomes distracted and forgets. The video compared it to reckless driving. You can drive safely 99% of the time, but it only takes one episode of going to fast in the wrong place to result in a tragic accident.

I’m not describing the video well, but its point is something that we all need to consider. I wash my hands a lot. I have been especially conscientious about washing the more often and more carefully since the pandemic has brought our personal behavior to our attention I was carrying hand sanitizer in my car long before this outbreak. We often go places that don’t have adequate hand washing facilities. We love to camp and explore the out of doors. Not every pit toilet has a hand washing station. But since we’ve renewed our consciousness about washing hands, I’ve noticed that I have a new routine that is necessary. I have to remember to rub lotion into my hands. They’ve become dry and rough from all of the washing.

One thing that will come out of this particular episode in our history is a renewed awareness of personal hygiene and perhaps some changes in our society. We noted, when traveling in Japan two years ago, that it is possible to have a perfectly friendly and polite culture with people who are wonderfully gracious and hospitable without the custom of sharing hands. Bowing is a gracious gesture of acknowledging another person. And in our travels in Japan, we noticed that people of all ages were quick to wear face masks when they thought they might cough or sneeze. It seemed to us to be a gracious gesture aimed at protecting others from infection. At the time, we never really considered that we might learn to wear face masks. It seemed to be just another quirks of another culture. Now it seems obvious to me that we all should learn to wear masks when we need to go out while suffering from colds or the flu. Many of Japan’s people live in densely populated areas. Trains are often crowded. People learn to live and work in close proximity to others. Basic hygiene is important.

Perhaps we all can adopt some of our pandemic practices into everyday practices and help to slow the transmission of all kinds of communicable diseases. Fewer colds and flu episodes would be a general benefit to society.

I grew up in a family with a certain formality about how we treated each other. I didn’t suffer from a lack of contact and I was picked up and hugged as a child, but we weren’t a family of huggers. I remember having one aunt who was always hugging us as children and thinking that she was a bit strange. My favorite great uncle never displayed affection publicly. He kept a little distance. And folks in my family in general needed a bit more personal space than some others. When I found myself in situations in college and seminary where everybody was hugging everybody else, I felt a bit uncomfortable. I would sometimes joke about forced hugs, but behind the jokes was a certain uncomfortableness with public displays of affection.

So I’m not too worried about social distancing. Although I’ve stood at the entryway of the church and shook hands with most of the congregation after worship for 42 years now, I see no problem with greeting others without physical contact.

We may be in the midst of the world’s largest ever public awareness campaign about washing hands. There are signs and posters and memes everywhere. I’ve even noticed that the big highway electronic signs that usually warn of slippery roads ahead or remind drivers to call 511 before taking a trip now are reminding people to wash their hands. We may emerge from this particular crisis with more awareness and better habits when it comes to washing hands. That can be helpful in slowing the spread of a lot of infections and diseases.

I’ve had a few jobs in my life where washing hands was obvious. If you are working with grease and dirt you can tell you hands are dirty by looking at them. When I worked on the ranch I would often emerge from working on a machine with grease up to my elbows. I had dirt under my fingernails. I could see that I needed to wash my hands. Most ranch houses have a mudroom with a sink right by the back door so that you can wash up before touching anything inside the house.

Viruses, however, are too small to see. You can have viruses and bacteria on your hands with no visible signs that they are present. Maybe if we simply imagined our hands to be covered with dirt and grease it would help us remember to wash them. As the video noted, it isn’t the 99 times that you wash your hands that causes infection. It is the one time that you forget or pass up a hand washing station.

I expect I’ll be using a lot more hand lotion in the years to come.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!