A Germaphobe Is Born

What’s worse: pandemic or fear of pandemic?

By Kathryn Robinson November 17, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

IF YOU DIDN’T know a bell cord could be pulled with an elbow, you may never have pushed an elevator button with your knuckle or unlatched a restroom door with the hams of your fist. These are skills I’ve mastered in response to the current pandemic. I don’t know if swine flu will be roaring or fading by the time you read this. I do know that in October my daughter’s middle school made national news for the high–tech way it was getting homework to the one–fifth of the student–body—one–fifth—that was absent.

I consequently know that I’ve become a little nuts.

This is new for me. I have seriously germophobic friends whose fear of MRSA has kept them out of hospital rooms in which their elderly parents lay lonely and in pain. One of these friends will not take her child to the contagion–riddled doctor’s office for any condition short of an exploding appendix or spurting neck wound.

My approach with these friends—and we all have them—has generally been abject ridicule. As one sits sniffling with her common cold, attempting to pinpoint the precise source of infection by forensically retracing each fingertip’s encounters across her day, I do supportive things like lick my hands and waggle them in her face. Because seriously. How can a layperson locate the origin of a germ? Why would anyone try? Can the conjecture gleaned from such an exercise begin to compensate for the paranoid misanthropy it sparks?

You know that annoying colleague who pulls a grimace and makes a great show of backing away when you tell her you’re not feeling well? I don’t like that person. That is why it’s so alarming to see the swine flu turning me into her. Part of my issue is that flu season coincided with the start of the year at my daughter’s new school, which ushered me into a new bus routine. No more genteel No. 25 meandering quarter–full through leafy residential neighborhoods. Now I ride the standing–room–only No. 3, the public–health thrill ride my husband calls the Sputum Express.

It’s a stop–and–go route—really, the Sputum Local—traversing Pill Hill along an axis seemingly designed to promote the most efficient spread of communicable disease. And I’m not talking about its stops near an addiction recovery center, a big public housing project, and two jails—though such destinations certainly serve individuals with more on their minds than covering coughs. No, it’s the clinic stops that give me pause: Cherry Hill Swedish, Minor and James Medical, and that noblest of lifesaving institutions and crown jewel of petri dishes, Harborview Medical Center.

Occasionally a passenger will climb aboard wearing a surgical mask, and I’m vividly reminded of the close air and bodily proximity bus riders enjoy. Then I look around and realize that it’s the ones without surgical masks I should worry about. The first time my husband rode with me the woman behind us suffered the kind of pro­tract­ed coughing fit in which one hears the rumblings of liquids, solids, and, one fears, detaching internal organs, and during which one recalls that slo–mo close–up from high–school health class—the one where the microscopic virus arcs out of the sick person’s mouth and directly into the teensy drink hole in the coffee cup lid. A coffee cup lid that bears a striking resemblance to the one I’m drinking from. “Ugh…sorry!” barked the cougher after her fit subsided, in that way the No. 3 crowd has of talking to no one in particular and everyone within earshot. “Just released from Harborview. Not the flu, though! Actually they don’t know what it is.”

Then she sneezed.

And so the Sputum Express got its name, and Bell Cord Tai Chi got born of necessity—and I began to master the art of maintaining balance on a lurching bus using only forearms and elbows and hips for support. And my fingernails started growing to lengths a chronic nail–biter never even dreams about.

And here’s the irony: I’m not even afraid of having swine flu. For non–risk–group adults like myself it sounds like a mildly uncomfortable week at home with Oprah. No, I’ve been gripped by Pandemic Fever, a full-–body assault marked by fear of human contact and brought on by a society temporarily obsessed with public health. Even my church enabled my new pursuit of human avoidance. Our pastors encouraged us to pass the peace, if we wished, without the customary handshakes or hugs. What’s going on when your pastor preaches strategies for avoiding human contact? Pandemic Fever.

I guess it’s bigger than me. Especially since the vaccine hasn’t become widely available yet, and may not be by the time you read this. Really especially since so many folks have concluded that even when the vaccine is available, they’ll be ignoring it. Never mind that the swine flu vaccine has the support of virtually every medical professional in the country, or that if left unchecked the virus could mutate into something far worse. Never mind that—mild–week–with–Oprah majority notwithstanding—this one’s disproportionately picking off children.

No, they can’t get this vaccine into me fast enough. I may be low risk, but I’m sure I can make a convincing argument that a raging case of Pandemic Fever is threatening enough to move me to the front of the line. Because it sure feels threatening.

It’s almost as scary as the pull cord on the No. 3 bus.

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