Lindsay Hanson Metcalf: Flu epidemic makes my son’s surgery that much scarier

Lindsay Metcalf and her two boys, Bennett (left) and Quinn.
Lindsay Metcalf and her two boys, Bennett (left) and Quinn. The Kansas City Star

It’s flu season, a time of excess hand sanitizer and peak parental OCD.

We prepare children the best we can, teaching them to wash hands the right way, cough into their elbows and keep their hands away from their faces. But we also know that getting sick is part of being a kid, so we send them to day care or school or wherever else kids go, knowing that they are likely to pick up germs along the way.

The strategy changes, and becomes even more important, when your kiddo is preparing for surgery.

Our oldest was born with congenital microtia/atresia, or the lack of an ear canal and a malformed outer ear. But with surgery at an out-of-town specialist now, and a second procedure in three months, he’ll have a hearing ear by the time he starts kindergarten in the fall. We are determined to have him all healed and ready to hear, and we’re set to squeeze in just under the deadline.

Yet somehow in the rush this month, preoccupied with the weather and the possibility of flying in an ice storm, I neglected to ramp up our defenses against the flu. That is until about five days before we were to leave.

My mother astutely reminded me that preschool tends to be a cesspool of germs, and that to send my oldest back for two days of class after winter break could jeopardize all that we had planned.

So here we sit, still healthy and semi-quarantined in our warm little bubble of a home on the Plains.

This year’s flu has reached epidemic heights, according to the Centers for Disease Control. My family did its part to prevent it when each of us submitted to flu shots in the fall. But this year’s vaccine is only about 33 percent effective, according to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Suddenly, in the waning days before surgery, going to the supermarket is like entering a war zone. I brief the kids about not touching the cart. I attack the handle with antibacterial wipes. I deploy my winter gloves for an extended tour indoors. I arm exposed skin with hand sanitizer. My eyes twitch from the meat wall to my oldest son’s ungloved hand as he unwittingly touches the cart. I bark militant orders about my youngest’s thumb-sucking.

The one excursion we allowed in the week prior to surgery was gymnastics. What self-respecting sickly person, we reasoned, would leave the house to practice a sport? Preschool, by contrast, was out. At least for the oldest. After his teacher surveyed parents about whether they’d encountered sickness over break, we decided that sending him wouldn’t be worth the risk.

The youngest got to go because he has only one classmate. Said classmate was determined to be healthy, and because theirs was the first class post-break, the environment was disease-free.

As of this correspondence we are only a few days away from traveling, so my fretting turns to the travel itself. I have studied flu maps online that show hot spots around the country. Airplanes, which I once (irrationally) worried would be a conduit for Ebola, now realistically become incubators for airborne pathogens. Then there are the public restrooms. The greasy, poorly sanitized food court tables. The heavily trafficked seating in airport terminals.

Listing threats like these makes me itchy. Fortunately we have the benefit of healthy immune systems, while so many others do not.

Of course, whatever happens, we will manage. We will do our best to stay healthy, and if we can’t muster a disease-free day of surgery, we will try again.