About nine months ago, my lung problems unexpectedly returned. My right lung chronically leaks air, causes chest pain, and once again puts me in the boring position of having to "take it easy" all the time. Because lifting heavy objects is dangerous for my lungs, I shop for groceries online or get help from family members. Last week I gave my dad my typical list of fruits and vegetables, along with a new addition "peanuts (preferably oven roasted and salted)". My dad returned from Young's Produce a short time later with a giant plastic bag full of peanuts - the real kind, fully shelled. The kind they give you at the zoo to feed the elephants. The kind I haven't seen since I was a kid.
Yesterday, my niece Jessy came over and the first thing she asked was "Why is there a giant bag of peanuts in your kitchen?" Jessy lives only two blocks away and is at my house enough to notice something slightly odd or out of place, like a bag of peanuts. I told her that Grandpa had gotten me the "old-fashioned" peanuts, rather than the canned variety I had intended. She found this amusing, as do I, and then she pulled out a bowl and started cracking open peanuts. After we watched an episode of "What I Like About You", I headed upstairs to take a nap. Jessy said she would finish eating a few more peanuts and then walk back home.
Three hours later, I came downstairs after my nap and found a bowl of already-peeled peanuts and a note written in pink magic marker "Skippy, I peeled all these peanuts for you. Love, Jessy". The note didn't actually say "Love", but rather had the name "Jessy" surrounded by a couple of hearts, the classic 8th grade signature. A rush of gratitude came over me, especially since Jessy and I had agreed earlier how annoying it is to have to crack open peanut shells. Jessy also left a glass of milk and a plate with an enormous pile of cracked-open peanut shells, the byproducts of her work.
At this point, the story should end, a slightly mundane account of an Uncle's appreciation of a small token of kindness. But this is no ordinary Uncle. This is an Uncle who at age 12 got the nickname "bubble boy" after a series of unflattering allergic reactions involving run-ins with honey bees, and who since then has spent so many years being sick that he avoids germs at any and all cost. Over the course of the next few seconds, my appreciative thoughts of peanuts degenerated into a nervous inner monologue: "Had Jessy washed her hands before she cracked and peeled my peanuts? Stop it - only a germaphobe or hypochondriac would be worried about that. But, then again, she did have a bad cold recently..."
I don't like germs. I hate sharing glasses and I am utterly caught off guard when someone drinks out of my glass without asking ñ without even giving me the chance to lie and say "Oh, actually I have a cold, you probably don't want to do drink from my cup". Having familiarized myself with various studies reporting the presence of fecal matter in over 50% of nuts, limes, and lemons found in bars in New York City, I certainly wouldn't eat from the mixed nuts bowl at any bar.
My germ obsessions are not limited to eating and drinking, though. Anytime I see someone sneeze or cough vigorously into his or her hand, the image is involuntarily branded into my mind. If that person tries to shake my hand at any point in the near future, without first having washed, I refuse. It leads to difficult social interactions, but I physically find it very difficult to embrace such a hand. Instead, my arms remain frozen at my side as my inner being points and screams in unison "unclean!" towards the extended hand. When I see someone leave a public restroom without washing, I likewise avoid a later handshake from said cleanliness delinquent. It's not as rare an occurrence as one would think, either. Declining a handshake might be rude, but in my mind the thoughtless offer of a cold virus-laden or urine-tainted hand is the true offender.
This brings me to the greatest violator of them all - the handkerchief. The offensively absurd spelling of the word pales in comparison to the product's egregious infringement on sanitation. I struggle to imagine how it became acceptable to blow one's nose - emptying what we all know can be a significant quantity of a liquid or solid, multi-colored collection of slimy snot & mucous, with the occasional appearance of bloody discharge - and deposit it onto a piece of cloth that we then fold and place neatly in our pocket. Somewhere along the way, a "hankie" marketing genius convinced Americans it was normal to store our own nasal content, neatly nestled away, incubating safely in the warm, dark confines or our own pockets, with no regard to the car keys, money, wallet, or anything else it might be rubbing up against.
Men will allow a used handkerchief to sit in their pockets for an hour, a day, even a week. They will think nothing of later pulling out that same crusted over contraption, raising it to their face and nose to make further additions to their nasal collection. Everyone knows the nose can spread Bronchitis, Croup, Influenza, Strep Throat, Scarlet Fever, the common cold, pneumonia, ear infection, and Pinkeye. A virtual reservoir of germs, one nose can contain millions of bacterial cells. If that's not enough, in 2006 the Journal of Infectious Diseases reported that 32% of Americans carry drug resistant Staph bacteria in their noses. Staph and Strep can both cause an outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria). So go ahead, wrap all that good bacteria up in your hand and shove it deep into your petri dish, I mean pocket. Just don't be mad when I pretend not to notice when you try to shake my hand.
In truth, a Germaphobe like me dreams of a world free of handshakes, perhaps a time in the future when we have adopted traditional Chinese or Japanese greetings. No touching - we'd all respectfully bow upon seeing each other. On a more serious note, I look forward to a day when Americans are more responsible with our antibiotics usage. I cringe when I hear friends say that they only took half or some of their antibiotics because they started to feel better, or because they "wanted to go drinking [alcohol]." I believe that resistant Staph infections will soon be ubiquitous enough that half-dosing on antibiotics will become less socially acceptable. For now though, I'll quietly bite my tongue when I hear first-hand accounts of unfinished penicillin prescriptions.
If I seem alarmist, talk to any local middle or high school student, who by this point has likely already seen at least one letter from school stating the following: "Dear Parents: There has been a case of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus or 'MRSA' diagnosed in a student attending _________ High School." While such a letter was news-worthy in 2007, it has already become the norm rather than the exception. Many of the students I tutor have received such letters from their schools, including my alma mater Haverford High School.
I can point to a few factors that motivate my tendency to be germophobic, though I'm not convinced any of them is the exact culprit. Two decades of illnesses and injuries have instilled in me a healthy fear of losing my health. Multiple lung surgeries, blood transfusions, severe allergic reactions, torn ligaments, concussions, bouts of pneumonia, appendicitis, minor melanoma surgery, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage all gave birth to an individual who now despises being sick. Like many who have been through some form of illness or injury, I have learned that the slightest complication, infection, or setback can quickly escalate into an incapacitating, longer-term problem. I am quietly terrified of further illness or injury, so I'll pretty much do anything to avoid either.
My father is likely another influence on my level of germ-awareness. A retired physician, my dad classifies as a germ-conscience individual in his own right. Probably the most fearless man I know when it comes to braving physical danger, my dad at age 66 will climb to the top rung of a 15 foot ladder, balance tenuously on one leg, and use a broom handle to swat haphazardly at the highest apples in his tree. If he's fortunate, a few apples will fall to the ground and later be used in my mother's homemade apple pies. My dad will then climb down, move the ladder to a new location, and repeat the process.
Despite my father's intrepid spirit, if the phrase "Resistant Staph Infection" is mentioned, his speech becomes panic-stricken and borderline hysterical. Four years ago, he gave up eating red meat when it was revealed that for almost two decades, cow feed labeled as unsafe by England's own standards was systematically shipped to the rest of the world, which then used the feed for its own animals, which were then eaten by people. During this time, an estimated 80 countries unknowingly imported animal feed from England that was likely to be infected with Mad Cow Disease. Because it can take 10 to 20 years for a prion-infected human to show symptoms, we may know very little about mad cow contamination in humans.
While my dad's responses to risk of Staph infection and Mad Cow Disease are more excessive than my own, I respect his beliefs because I see them as based on Science and on facts, not on fear. The only thing that puzzles me is that after a vigorous soap-and-water handwashing, my dad will invariably remove the handkerchief from his pocket and blow his nose. A germophobic handkerchief user - the ultimate enigma.
Lastly, my germ concerns are probably spurred on by my interest in medicine. Having studied ecology and biology in college, I spent a fair amount of time learning about fascinating infectious diseases, parasites, and various microbial wonders. Regardless of why I care so much about germs, though, I am not embarrassed by my concerns. For now, I believe my actions are influenced more by logic than by psychosis or fear. Still, once in a while I find myself apologetically blurting out "I'm sorry - but I have a problem with my lung and really don't want to catch a cold!" This, after people look at me like I'm crazy for asking a stranger to cover his mouth during a fit of coughing. If only they knew how desperately I would like to strap a SARS mask over the cougher's face. People don't understand, I tell myself. They don't know what it's like to be me and be sick all the time. I must avoid germs. I must avoid germs. I must avoid germs.
When I saw the freshly cracked and peeled peanuts that my niece Jessy had kindly left for me, the aforementioned sequence of thoughts - from sharing drinking glasses, to eating bar nuts, to awkward handshake refusals - consumed me in a matter of seconds. I pried myself away from such musings and regretfully decided the peanuts must be thrown away. This is a painful course of action for someone as conservative as myself. I'll gladly scrape mold off bread to get to the good parts, or drink 10-day old milk (as long as it smells OK), because I detest being wasteful.
As I stood in my family room, my hand hovering, quivering with indecision just above the peanuts, my internal conflict reminded me of a scene from "The Aviator". The epic film chronicles the life of multi-millionaire and eccentric airplane pioneer Howard Hughes, whose multiple phobias caused an eventual downward spiral into reclusiveness and insanity. In one scene, for example, Hughes found himself briefly trapped inside a public restroom because he could not bring himself to touch the germ-ridden door handle.
I had finished watching "The Aviator" just hours before Jessy came over, and Hughes' sad and tragic decline was fresh on my mind. The first signs of his illness, sure enough, were manifested as difficulties eating food he perceived to be unclean. Hughes' face twitched and his body shuddered if he perceived even the slightest imperfection in the appearance or presentation of a meal. Over time, Hughes made a habit of discarding meals.
At that very instant I made a conscientious decision not to head down any path that reminded myself of Howard Hughes. I decided not to throw out the peanuts. Instead, I rushed them to the kitchen sink and vigorously cleaned them under burning-hot running water. "See", I assured myself, "…it turns out I'm completely normal after all." The peanuts, although a little soggy, were delicious.