Sunday, September 30, 2012

Winter's Coming: Protect Yourself and Others ...

Fall has arrived and with it the first round of this year's sniffles, colds and flu. I remember vividly the fear this season could engender in me and in many other family caregivers.

For our loved ones with chronic illnesses and compromised immune systems, the season of "the simple cold" spelled serious trouble. Every ride on a crowded bus, every wait in a doctor's office or emergency waiting room, and every impromptu visit from a friend who was "almost over" his or her cold felt like a life-or-death situation.

Even worse was encountering healthcare professionals who were ill on the job. These wonderful helpers had the closest kind of contact with our vulnerable loved ones and their illnesses at work presented a very real threat to us.

I remember taking my husband to the pacemaker clinic for the programming of his new pacemaker.  He was already compromised by four years of life with heart failure and exhausted from a recent hospitalization. The cardio technician was "feeling terrible" and had a streaming cold. She sneezed, coughed and blew her nose several times as she attached his ECG leads, did the programming, and taught us about life with a pacemaker. Frighteningly, at no point in this process did we see her wash her hands.

Now, there are some obvious situations where hand washing must take a back seat - when dealing with aggressive behaviour, when trying to prevent injury as someone climbs over the bed rails, or during some life-threatening emergencies. However, this was not one of those situations. The presence of a tech who had come to work while ill (with the best of intentions) and who had neglected to wash her hands, put both my husband and myself at risk - at a time when we had little or no risk-tolerance left. We needed better support than that from our healthcare system.

Continual handwashing by all levels of healthcare workers, from janitors to physicians; sufficient staffing levels for appropriate use of personal sick time; improved hospital cleaning; and organizational illness-prevention strategies such as guilt-free refusal of overtime, opportunities to take  real breaks during the day, stress reduction programs and in-house exercise facilities could have gone a long way toward making our lives safer.

So, as the days shorten and the winter illnesses blow in, may each and every one of us stop to consider the impact of our simplest choices on those most vulnerable to infection - including the family caregivers who struggle to stay well as they continue their care.

How you can help:

  • Practice exquisite self care to boost your resistance to "the winter illnesses".
  • Get your flu shot early.
  • Wash your hands before and after contact with those you want to protect - every time.
  • Never visit with or care for anyone with a serious chronic illness / compromised immune system (or his or her caregiver) until all your cold or flu symptoms have gone. (I do recognize the irony in saying this to family caregivers who may have to continue caring while they're ill - but even we who care at home could ask for help more frequently in such situations.)


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