I believe my little 96-year-old Italian grandmother was right when she said, “Oh let her crawl on the ground. It’s good for her. It builds the immunity.” My daughter was only a few months old at the time, not quite crawling yet, but definitely hanging out on the ground a lot. My grandmother had many thoughts on this subject: daily baths wash away the immunities; a good dose of dirt helps keep the defenses up; dog kisses are healthy for babies, especially if they’re on the face.
I had my daughter at the end of medical school. Most medical students are hypochondriacs, believing every esoteric disease is running amok in their own bodies as well as fearing the same for their loved ones. But, between my grandmother’s advice and my own busy schedule, my daughter was lucky to get a bath every third or fourth day. Why should I let the aroma of curdled breastmilk rush my sweet baby into the bathtub?
Perhaps I took my grandmother too literally sometimes. When I was a first-year family medicine resident, my husband used to bring my daughter to visit when I was on call. I thought nothing of having her crawl around on the floor of the ICU. There was a carpet behind the nurses’ station that seemed just perfect for a little baby to hang out on.
Even now, despite medical school, residency, and few years as a practicing physician on faculty at a medical school, I pale in comparison to my friends when it comes to fearing germs. I feel like I’m constantly spewing the mantra of some Germ-a-Phobics Anonymous group: “a little dose of dirt is good for you”.
Last week, the mother of one of my daughter’s gymnastics teammates leaned over and said to me, “I bet you’re stewing because they didn’t wash their hands before they were allowed to eat their Valentines cupcakes.” I responded, “No, I’m just appalled they’re eating cupcakes after two hours of practice when they haven’t even had dinner yet!”
A surgeon I trained with used to scoff at the antibacterial washes his fellow surgeons used during abdominal operations. He used just water, lots of it, his motto being “the solution to pollution is dilution” – if you use enough water to clean something, the germs will be diluted to oblivion. Now, when my friends freak out if there’s no soap in the restaurant bathroom, I find myself quoting the surgeon.
To use another expression rooted in equally questionable ground, my daughter, now six years old, is “healthy as a horse.” She’s one of a handful of kids at school this year with perfect attendance. Sure, she gets the common cold and occasional bellyache. But all that early dirt, plentiful greyhound kisses, and lack of bathing has really done her good! Yes, Grandma Jean, I’m a believer.
PS: In my professional life, of course, I wash my hands between every patient and definitely do my best to avoid spreading communicable disease.
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