I remember how I felt the wool growing on my back when they first taught me to scrub in medical school. I knew in my heart they were making me into a sheep. Why has it taken me so long to admit it?
They first had us change clothes in the dressing room. We had to put on “scrub suits” that the hospital provided. The blue cotton made us all look the same. What a sheepy way to start the indoctrination.
Next, they had us put on masks. We had to do this BEFORE we washed our hands because theoretically, the hands would be clean after we washed them, and the masking process required that we use our hands. I can remember forgetting to put on the mask FIRST a time or two, then halfway through the hand scrubbing process I remembered. Had to go get the mask, tie it on over the cap or hood over the hair, then return to the hand washing, but had to start the whole process over. I was just like a sheep going through the pens. I had to go one direction, first gate first, no freedom.
The hand washing was expected to take a certain amount of time. The water over the sinks could be turned on with a bump of the knee and it ran on a timer. I was expected to scrub each finger, backs, fronts, forearms for the time the water ran. When it shut off you could proceed to the next step. Just like sheep in the sheep dip.
My freedom loving nature rebelled a bit against this oppression. I had learned about bacteria, viruses, the transmission of contagion in my undergraduate classes in microbiology.
Indeed, I’d heard the heart-breaking story of Ignaz Semmelweis advocating for handwashing in the early 1800’s. He was a young doctor who watched women who had babies in hospitals die of “child bed fever”. At the time he didn’t know, nobody knew about bacteria. But it struck him as odd that women who delivered in the midwife ward had much lower fatality rates than those delivered in a hospital. At the time, it was expected medical procedure for the physician to perform an autopsy on the patient who died the day before. Midwives didn’t do autopsies on their dead patients. If he (the physicians were all men back then) had to run from the necropsy room to the delivery room, no hand washing was required. If the woman delivered that day died of the same fever as the cadaver had the day before, the connection was lost on 19th century doctors. Antisepsis had not been invented.
Semmelweis instituted the practice of hand washing in one ward and reduced the incidence of “child bed fever” deaths by 90%. He had no explanation for why such a practice worked, only evidence that it did.
But his recommendation that doctors wash their hands was not met with approval. Doctors back then knew, Ignaz just wanted us to be sheep. Their reaction to his affront was strong. Can you imagine a doctor being accused of spreading a disease? Semmelweis was shamed and demeaned. Eventually he was committed to an asylum and beaten, dying from the infected wounds.
It took another thirty years for other doctors to advance the “Germ Theory”. Remember, it’s just a theory.
Doctors have a long and proud history of defending our freedom to do what we think is best. And when someone presents evidence that flies in the face of our practices, we assail the messenger.
It’s looking like this pandemic might hang around for another thirty years. Maybe by then we won’t feel like sheep, and we’ll know the right thing to do. In the meantime, my colleagues will do their best to care for the unimmunized as they clog our wards and ICUs.