My Turn: Germ warfare

Published: 1/22/2021 9:30:53 AM

Grandma believed in germs. Or at least in germ warfare. She monitored our feet, swiped at our hands, assaulted our ears and boiled the canned peas within an inch of their lives. Grandma was out to get the germs before they got us.

A survivor of Russian Pogroms, she’d never forget or forgive the twin enemies of life: Cossacks and germs.

As a child, when a Sabrett’s hot dog truck moved into our neighborhood, emitting its delectable odors of franks, onions, sauerkraut, I lined up. But Grandma launched her squat body between the hot dog man and her grandchildren.

“Dead pigeons,” she whispered. “Dead cats,” she hissed. “Eat and you’ll die.”

Weeks later, when Uncle Arthur gave me a quarter, I went by to the corner and bought my hotdog. “The works,” I said, then snorted it down whole and waited to die. The next morning, alive, I dismissed Grandma’s germs. That is, until recently when I got a serious infection called “C-Diff.” In this time of hunkering down to avoid COVID, we forget that there are other germs that can make you die.

Germ Warfare begins:

Do not cook.

Do not open the refrigerator.

Do not touch the utensils that you — my beloved partner — use.

Wash clothes, towels, sheets every day but not dearest one, mine and yours together.

Clothes exposed in the hospital (leggings, shoes, toiletry bag etc.) must be summarily thrown out.

Wash hands to two rounds of happy birthday and knuckles grow raw.

Clorox assaults doorknobs, faucet handles and screen surfaces.

Stay vigilant.

C-Diff, not COVID, was the cause. My infection with C-Diff was a fluke. The blocked carotid artery that required surgery. The routine of antibiotics added to the anesthesiologist’s infusion.

The presence of a toxic C-Diff bacteria that lives in hospitals and guts, and the antibiotics that offset the normal bodily balance that may allow the infection to grow. Not my fault. Not a social failure, not the broken compact of shunning masks or dishonoring distancing. Not arrogance or carelessness and yet, I experienced my body’s frailties with moments of shame and apology. “Sorry … so sorry,” I kept saying.

In sum, it’s been a difficult learning experience. One that made me grateful and humble with a dash of the paranoid. The experience of isolation and quarantine is hard to imagine, though, in this time of pandemic, we do imagine. To be restricted to a small space, to rely on a call button and the merciful care of nurses who probably have too many of you anyway, is more than sobering. It’s traumatizing.

I salute the many heroes of our local hospital: the housekeepers, doctors, the three shifts of nurses, the ambulance crew that manipulate you downstairs and around curves and never lose a beat. My gratitude grew daily for the hospital staff, sheathed in suffocating PPE, who heeded my call button to bring meds, take my vitals, wash me down, bring my food and even take time to chat. Like that time a nurse attached antiseptic wipes to her shoes to Charleston across my floor!

All that competence and grace under fire and yet, during those five days, I battled an emotional landscape that swung from stoic to desperate: the endless interruptions of the night, the sudden awakenings, the blasts of light, the indignity of a body in the throes of the uncontrollable. Even with a family that rallied with every trick they had up their sleeve, sending selfies, loving messages and ‘call me any time” offers, I felt desperately alone.

There was a patient down the hall, I couldn’t see but could hear perfectly, who screamed out her tribulation, “I want coffee. What’s so friggin’ hard about that?” Or “I have to go to the bathroom. What’s so friggin’ hard about that?” Protesting her situation with the madness of illness. While I remained submissive, but yearned to yell, “I don’t want to be sick, what’s so friggin’’ hard about that?”

And now knowing from experience what I know, I can only plea that in this time of surging pandemic that you Dear Readers will take every single precaution — wear your mask, wash your hands, keep necessary distances — and do not become the one on the other end of a call button, when it’s all that links self to life saving care.

And what would Grandma Annie say now, long dead these 30  years? “They’re back, she’d say. “I told you so. She’d say. “Wash your hands. Better. Again.” Then she’d spit three time … ptui ptui ptui … and raise a small fist against the germs and the Cossacks.

Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident and a regular contributor to the Recorder’s op-ed page.


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