The Day My Life Changed Because My Father Didn’t Wash His Hands

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

This is not a coronavirus story.

But it is relevant.

Dad was visiting his brother in Western Australia when he got sick. A cold became something much worse very quickly, and the last time we spoke to him on the phone he couldn’t string a sentence together. We urged my uncle to get him to a doctor, and made arrangements to fly over.

Australia is a pretty decent size, so when a loved one suddenly gets very ill on the other side of the country a lot can happen in the five hours it takes to fly to them.

When Mum and I got on the plane in Sydney, Dad was unwell but being looked after by a regional hospital halfway up the West Coast. By the time we touched down in Perth he had been put into a coma and flown to the Western Australian capital on life support.

He’d always wanted a trip with the Royal Flying Doctors. He hadn’t planned on being unconscious for it.

And this was all because he didn’t wash his hands, or wear a face mask.

It took them three days to discover Dad had Legionnaire’s Disease, which is a form of pneumonia brought about by the Legionella bacteria. Most of us have heard of the type of Legionnaire’s you get from bacteria in water. Dad didn’t have this one. Turns out there’s another strain of Legionella bacteria, and this one lives in dirt.

In Dad’s case, it came from potting mix.

Those bags of dirt you buy from the garden centre to pot your plants are apparently the perfect place for this less common strain of Legionella bacteria to thrive. Inhale it when you open the bag, or get it on your hands and then inhale it when you touch your face, and you could find yourself in a whole world of trouble.

Which brings me back to the point of this story.

There are instructions on every bag of potting mix to wear a mask and gloves while handling the product, and wash your hands thoroughly. It doesn’t sound that hard, and it could literally save your life, yet we never do it.

Dad certainly didn’t.

I remember being in the hospital in Perth, having just left the ICU, ranting to a close friend over the phone. Test results had just confirmed the spate of gardening Dad had done before flying west was responsible for his condition. He couldn’t breathe for himself because he used potting mix without wearing a mask or gloves. And I knew he wouldn’t have washed his hands, because he never did.

“It’s just a bit of dirt,” he’d always say. “A bit of dirt won’t kill ya.”

Except it very nearly did.

Dad almost died because he didn’t follow simple instructions.

After I calmed down from my rant, I realised what a hypocrite I was. I’ve used potting mix a hundred times myself, and while I do wash my hands after playing in the dirt, I don’t remember ever wearing a face mask. I may have worn gloves if I had some handy, but if not my bare hands would go straight in. And I doubt I’m alone in that. As it happened I walked past a woman potting some plants in her front yard yesterday, with not a glove or a mask in sight. Granted those things are a little harder to come by these days, but still.

Why is it we fail to follow simple instructions that could save our lives?

I said this wasn’t a coronavirus story, but I lied. Right now following simple instructions could do more than save your life. It could save humanity.

Yet some of us still aren’t getting the message.

Why are so many people still ignoring social isolating rules? Why are people still going out and gathering in crowds? Why are people still not washing their hands?

Because they think it won’t happen to them.

“That doesn’t apply to me.”

“That happens to other people.”

“That’s the stuff you see on the news, not round here.”

Well guess what, people. It is happening. This virus is affecting all of us. Every country, every city, every town, every household, every person. We’re all involved.

We are all responsible.

If you think it won’t happen to you, you’re kidding yourself.

Dad recovered, and now he and Mum are stuck in their home for the foreseeable future because they’re in the high-risk over 70’s group. In some ways I’m glad Dad went through what he did a couple of years ago, because it’s at least made him realise the importance of washing his hands.

Now if we can just get the rest of the world to start taking this shit seriously, we might save some lives.

Inspiring a healthy creative life.

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