Before the NICU, I thought nothing of the simple act of washing my hands. I did it before meals and after leaving restrooms, but I never dwelled on how to wash my hands or for how long. I had the luxury of being healthy and not fearing illnesses. But, all that changed when I had tiny babies.
I remember the very first time I scrubbed into the NICU. I was already overwhelmed with the sounds and smells, not to mention the surprise of finding ourselves there. Before I could even so much as glimpse my tiny baby for the first time in two days, I had to wet my hands, scrub them with strong hospital-grade soap for three minutes, and use toothpick-like plastic sticks to clean under my nails. It seemed like an eternity, but the fear that I might give my fragile baby an illness kept me scrubbing.
In our first months home with preemies, I was a wee bit obsessive about handwashing. I was terrified for someone to touch my baby with dirty hands, because I saw any disease as a threat. There were months of awkward “Um, have you washed your hands?” to family members and “Please, don’t touch my baby” to strangers in stores.
Now, my tiny babies are active kids, but we have incorporated proper handwashing into our routines. The first thing we do when we walk into our house is wash our hands. Always. Many times a day, I’m at the sink with the kids, reminding them to soap the tops of their hands and between their fingers and singing “Happy Birthday” with them twice to mark how long we should suds our hands.
Every time I’m in a public restroom, I notice it: rinsing, instead of proper handwashing. Once you’ve scrubbed into a NICU, the lack of proper handwashing in the world around you is startling. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but flicking your fingers under cold water a few times is not handwashing! And it really doesn’t take but 20 seconds of thorough washing with soap and warm water to make a huge difference to our health. According to the CDC, many of us could be spared from the spread of illnesses if we just washed our hands more thoroughly throughout the day. Proper handwashing can reduce gastrointestinal illnesses by more than 30% and respiratory illnesses by as much as 20%. Who wants to be sick if you don’t have to be?
So, on Global Handwashing Day, here’s a high five to all my fellow former NICU hand-scrubbers singing “Happy Birthday” and sudsing between little fingers. Let’s spread the word.