Remember What Mom Says - Wash Your Hands

By: 
Dave Fornell

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April 9, 2008

Many clinicians probably feel like they are being treated like a 5-year-old with the constant warnings and reminders to wash their hands to prevent getting sick or spreading bacteria. While it is simple and we all know hand-washing is important to prevent the spread of hospital-acquired infections like MRSA, people also know smoking is harmful to health, yet every medical convention I have attended I see doctors and nurses outside the convention doors smoking. Medical professionals know what is right, but must be reminded to walk the talk.

I never really seriously considered how easy it is to spread bacteria or to get an infection until I was paid a visit in March 2007, by staphylococcus aureus. I consider myself a pretty clean person - showering and shaving every day, washing my hands numerous times a day, wearing clean clothes, treating minor cuts with alcohol, etc. That is why I was very surprised when a close shave of my beard caused a small red irritated spot on my face. I figured I just nicked myself and it was not a big deal. However the small irritation was caused by staph entering the tiny cut and quickly grew into an extremely painful, deep, swollen red boil the size of a large gum ball. It began it impair my speech, ability to eat and concentration on anything else but the pain. The quick onset of the swelling and pain caused some of my nonclinician friends to conclude, as many people infected with staph so often do, that is must be a “spider bite.”

I am not one to run to the doctor every time I get an ache or pain, but the infection ran too deep and became too painful to ignore. When nearby lymph nodes began to swell I became pretty concerned and it was time to bring in a professional. My primary care physician used a scalpel to drain the boil. Luckily it was not MRSA, as she prescribed antibiotics that quickly wiped out the remaining infection. I can only imagine the difficulties if it had been MRSA.

That incident and the more I read about hospital-acquired infections makes me think back to previous experiences my family has had in hospitals and I start to make connections. My grandfather had leukemia and was having severe complications when he was admitted to a hospital in Madison, WI, several years ago. While his leukemia was likely terminal, a hospital-acquired infection is what actually killed him. The day he died, about a quarter of his face had an infection, which appeared to have started either in his nose or eye. His one eye was swollen shut, part of his nose appeared like a large, dark, open wound, and that side of his face and nose were badly distorted and discolored from the swelling.

My grandfather was a statistic, a single number among the 1.7 million U.S. patients who contract hospital-acquired infections each year. Of these, about 95,000 cases are MRSA infections, of which 19,000 die. The Centers for Disease Control point out MRSA now kills more people each year in the U.S. than the AIDS virus. Clinicians need to keep those stats in mind the next time someone reminds them to wash their hands.