It’s a sick, sick world ... especially when it comes to germs

Posted 10/18/19

This world is literally crawling with germs.

It’s little wonder none of us gets out of here alive.

This pleasantry was on my mind this past Saturday as I sat — suffering mightily — inside …

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It’s a sick, sick world ... especially when it comes to germs

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This world is literally crawling with germs.

It’s little wonder none of us gets out of here alive.

This pleasantry was on my mind this past Saturday as I sat — suffering mightily — inside a giant winged aluminum tube for about 10 hours with two people I knew and more than 300 I didn’t. As we jetted our way from Munich across seven time zones to Chicago, a whole lotta coughin’ was going on.

If you want to catch a virus, then spending nearly half a day in a confined space, literally shoulder to shoulder with some sick folks at 38,000 feet, is one way to do it.

Me? I was lucky. I don’t think I caught anything.

Then again, I was already sick when I got on the plane.

By the time we’d arrived for our mission trip six days earlier in Lviv, an ancient city near Ukraine’s western border, the principles of statistics, geometry and physics almost guaranteed I would come down with something. Five of us — my wife Lee Ann, Kay Patterson from our church and two Ukrainian friends living in Poland — arrived together Oct. 6 at our flat (Europeans don’t really use the word “apartment”) with two of our group already suffering from colds.

In that Soviet-era space we rented for the week, it was decidedly close quarters: the five of us sharing two bedrooms and a single bathroom. Although we mostly used the flat for sleep, within a couple of days the collective tickles in our throats and the increasing frequency with which we were coughing made it obvious that we were sharing more than just the same address.

Despite frequent hand-washings, proper coughing practices, emptying a full bottle of Vitamin C and frequent doses of essential oils Lee Ann brought to ward off a litany of physical ailments, we each fell victim, one by one. Our shared symptoms and general malaise didn’t interfere too much with the work we were there to do, but in the end a toll was taken.

Kay had the worst of it there and was sick the longest (so far). My suffering was at its most dire on the flights home with a violent sinus headache that had me wincing with pain anytime a nearby passenger opened a window shade, allowing sunlight to flood the plane’s cabin; at this writing, I have a minor cough and some congestion. And in the last few days, Lee Ann has been as debilitated as I’ve seen her (fever, racking cough, drained of energy) in the 31 years we’ve known each other.

Our Ukrainian friend Kate, who fell ill at home in Poland a couple of days before our trip started but was feeling better by the time we all reached Lviv, had a relapse during our time together. She got worse, and in a coughing spell after she returned home, severely strained her back. By week’s end she will have missed a total of eight days of work.

“Blame it on the Americans,” I told her to tell her boss.

But the sad truth is, blame it on a germ.

The tally, as of this writing: among the five of us, we’ve had a total of eight doctor visits, a dozen trips to various pharmacies in three countries, nearly 20 prescriptions dispensed and a running total of missed work/school days that will likely hit 15 or more — thanks to Kate’s pneumonia, a case of bronchitis and other maladies brought on by the one or more viruses we brought to our little party.

And those numbers, ladies and germs, may go up (cough) since we’re (cough) all still sickly (cough).

Germs — “germ” is basically a generic term for any kind of microscopic particle that includes viruses and bacteria — are everywhere. Bacteria, mostly harmless, are so plentiful that our bodies have 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. When bacteria go bad, we take antibiotics to kill them or slow their growth, allowing our incredible immune systems to work magic and heal us.

Viruses, about which less are known, are smaller and basically are on the prowl full-time for a host to infect, causing illnesses like colds and the flu. The fact that they’re immune to antibiotics and contagious makes viruses problematic; get a bad virus, and antivirals and vaccines can aid (with time and our own immune systems) recovery.

Regardless of how they’re defined and how they attack us, these collective little troublemakers have helped make life miserable for a lot of folks, especially in wintertime. The fact that we know so relatively little about them is frustrating, but we’re finding out more all the time.

In a stroke of serendipitous but stomach-churning timing, an article in a blog I subscribe to and received during our flight home spelled out some of the more disgusting things we’ve learned in the last few years about germs.

At the risk of grossing you out or triggering your hypochondria, here are a few tidbits:

• One sick employee can contaminate 50 percent of surfaces and co-workers in an 80-person office in just four hours. (Sick day, anyone?)

• The single dirtiest, most bacteria-filled place most of us will ever visit isn’t a public restroom, but rather the average grocery-store shopping cart. (Those handy wipes near the rows of carts? Use ‘em.)

• Speaking of public toilets: sure, they can be nasty, but because most get cleaned at least occasionally, the average desk in the average office can have 400 times more dangerous bacteria than a public toilet seat. (Looking for them? They’re mostly found on the surfaces of our computers.)

• It’s safer to make a sandwich in a public restroom than on the average kitchen chopping board. (Not that you’d want to…)

• And finally: each square inch of your smartphone contains an average of 25,000 squirming germs.

What’s the lesson here?

You can run — you can even fly — but it’s hard to hide from germs.

Now that I’m home…can someone help me find my hand sanitizer?


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