My hand-washing problem started when I was 9 years old. There was an outbreak of e coli in Spokane and a handful of people had died. I definitely didn’t want to die, so I asked my mom’s friend, who was a nurse, how you get e coli. She said, “You get it if you don’t wash your hands often enough. Especially after using the bathroom.”
I have been assiduously washing my hands after using any bathroom, public or private, ever since, every single time. When I find myself in a situation where I can’t wash my hands, I am uneasy until I get to a place where I can. I also wash my hands a few (maybe more) times between lavatory visits, just for luck.
I’m quite serious about this, even in the most extreme situations. I’m very good at birthing babies. I discovered that when my first daughter was born. I take no credit for the skill, if that’s what it is. My body shoves me aside and takes over, rendering me a helpless hostage to forces I can’t control. The first time, the process involved three hours of waiting, two hours of labor, an exciting ride down the hallway while they exhorted me not to have the baby on the gurney (as if there was anything I could do about that), and two powerful pushes in the delivery room. It’s not easy to admit that I’m descended from the kind of rude peasant stock where the woman stops, drops the baby in the furrow, picks it up, and continues plowing. But apparently, I am.
Three and a half years after Claire was born, I found myself once again going through another lickety-split labor. A well-intentioned nurse, at a moment that she assumed was early in the process, suggested that I walk across the hall and take a hot shower in order to “even out” my intense and erratically spaced contractions. I knew from experience that her idea was completely mad, but I was too tired to argue, so I complied. As I stepped out of the shower after narrowly avoiding giving birth to my baby right there in the stall, I realized that I wasn’t going to leave the bathroom without stopping at the sink to wash my hands, even though I was deep into another possibly baby-producing contraction. I simply couldn’t resist the compulsion to sanitize.
The main reason I have never been fond of camping is that it offers so few opportunities to wash your hands. That’s okay because I come from a family that rarely goes camping. People from Brooklyn who own expensive tents love to sleep in the woods, where they can be close to nature. Third-generation Montanans love to sleep in the house, where they can be close to baseboard heaters and bathtubs. Where I come from, the necessary forays into the forest, such as hunting trips, do not require that you sleep in the woods. You drive to the place where the wild game lives, you shoot it, and you drive home to sleep in your own bed.
Except for my my closest friends and family, very few others are aware of my handwashing mania. I married someone who is such a germaphobe that even I think he’s a little bit crazy, so that’s never been a problem. Another friend of mine, who is a healthcare professional and works with immuno-suppressed patients, is also pretty damned meticulous about hygiene. She was watching me cook dinner one evening and said, “I’ve noticed, you wash your hands a lot. I like that.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Five thousand dinner parties and no fatalities.”
Now that the whole world is washing its hands more often, I don’t feel like such a head case anymore. And I’d be happy to follow the suggestion that I wash my hands more often than I already do, but I don’t think it’s possible. In fact, now that everyone else is doing it more, I’m trying to cut back on my own hand washing. Someone should think about conserving soap and I have already used much more than my share.
One thing I started to notice recently is that I have more company at the sink. Back in the day when I washed, I washed alone. Now I wash in company. And what I’m wondering is, where were all of my newfound sink buddies before the epidemic? Walking straight out the door and back into the gym without washing their hands, that’s where.
I finally stopped going to the gym last Friday. The reason I waited so long to give it up is that I loved the way they wiped down every surface the moment I lifted my hand from it and wiped down the next surface before my hand could land on it. In that respect, this epidemic has been very good to germaphobes. But I did see one guy carefully wipe an exercise bench off after he stood on it in his shoes and then immediately use the same towel to wipe his face. Yikes!
Now that we’re all washing and singing—silently or under our breath—to make sure we scrub for the full 20 seconds, I’ve started asking my fellow handwashers what their song is. Most of them have opted for that old standby “Happy Birthday” but a few have more interesting choices. One delightful codger at the gym broke into “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle” when I asked him, between bicep curls, what his handwashing song was.
Mine is my father’s old favorite, “Hey There,” from The Pajama Game. It has just three short verses followed by a brief hook. If you sing it just a little faster than the tempo that Sammy Davis Jr. chose for his very sweet but snappy version, you can get through the whole song in under a minute, which gives you enough time to dry your hands thoroughly too.
The idea of singing while you wash is not new to me. My daughter Claire, who majored in biology at Evergreen State College because she figured she would have the science labs all to herself while everyone else studied art, ran an experiment to determine whether the length of time you spend washing your hands appreciably reduces the number of microbes on them. She found that the subjects who achieved the best results were the ones who washed for the time it took them to sing “The Alphabet Song” twice. That’s another good option if you’re getting tired of musically wishing everyone a happy birthday while you hand sanitize.
Speaking of birthdays, I did manage to avoid depositing my second daughter on the floor next to the sink in the hospital bathroom. After lumbering back to my room, I heaved myself back onto the bed and nodded at my husband who stuck his head out of the door and shouted, “Show time!”
After they finally delivered me to the delivery room–not a second too soon–it took me three pushes to get her out, which is fair enough considering that she weighed nine pounds and thirteen ounces, a full two pounds more than her older sister had.
As I lay there holding my slightly scuffed-up but otherwise healthy new daughter in my extremely clean hands, the doctor, who wisely stood back and simply supervised the speedy delivery, looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest 10-minute baby I’ve ever seen.”