Joco Diversions

Emily Parnell: In the grudge match against illness, washing hands is a powerful weapon

“I want you to be a total freak about it,” I said. “Do it over and over again — until everyone makes fun of you. In fact, do it again right now. Twice in a row. Use plenty of soap.”

My kids are far from being germaphobes — way too far for my comfort. Especially right now during this nasty flu season. It’s striking a perfect balance of fear and responsibility without creating a debilitating phobia that causes my struggle.

In general, I think a little dirt is good for you. It’s scientifically proven to toughen you up — build your immunity. I’ve even read that a little exposure can help protect against some allergies. But illnesses — I’d really like to not pass those around. Because a little bug to me or my kids may be a catastrophic bug to someone else.

My household went down in flames during the great barf-o-rama of 2010 that shut down the kids’ school. It was a particularly painful experience for me, as I kicked off my personal illness with a dinner consisting entirely of piles of brussels sprouts, followed by ample amounts of peppermint martini. I blamed the tortuous contortions of my gut on the ill-planned combination, but alas, it occurred far beyond the confines of our home.

Like wildfire, the illness (later identified as norovirus) jumped from child to child in the school. On the worst day — the day when more than a third of the kids were sick, my son had complained in the morning of a stomach ache. I emailed his teacher, accusing him of faking ill to play hooky, promising to send him if he broke his cover.

“Do not send him!” she warned. Only four of her students made it to school that day, and by noon, the school had been closed down.

Stomach illness is messy and miserable, but not the scariest. I hold personal grudges against two illnesses in particular.

One, the common cold. I know — it’s no big deal, right? A sniffle here, a cough there, a week or so of feeling blah. No reason to stay home. Unless, of course, your child is one who gets croup. My daughter was a crouper. (I made that word up. It means: “Someone who gets croup all the time.”) Every single time she got a cold, it would turn to croup. She’d be sniffly and whatnot by day, but in the middle of the night (it couldn’t possibly happen during her pediatrician’s normal hours — that would have been ... affordable) she would struggle to breathe. Her cough would turn to the telltale seal bark, and inhaling became belabored gasps — a sound that belongs on deathbeds, not in cribs.

Before long, I learned the drill. Drag your sleepy butt outside to the bench in front of the house — the colder outside, the better. Wrap her up so she’s warm, but let her breathe the cool air. If it’s hot out (because croup can happen any time) open the freezer and have her sit in front of it to breath the cold air. And if it doesn’t go away — or if her stomach curls under her ribs when she gasps (called stridor breathing), get to urgent care. Stat. And bring plenty of money with you because the ER ain’t cheap. All from a measly little cold.

My second grudge is against the flu. The influenza that some people seem to think they are above catching and poo-pooh the shots. The one the inoculations sometimes work for — and sometimes don’t. The seasonal illness that I’ve lived through several times. The feverish chills that knock you to the ground. The illness that killed my beloved grandma.

You may not have a personal grudge against any illness. You may not even get “that sick.” But everywhere I turn, there are germs being recklessly spread. I’m as guilty as anyone — how could I not go to the grocery store, not work to pay the bills, not attend my child’s performance? I have responsibilities. People are counting on me.

But it’s the responsibility of it all — and thinking beyond myself and my schedule and my raw, bleeding hands that don’t want to see soap again until spring. It’s teaching my kids to be cautious — not just for their own sake, but for the sake of everyone else.

If you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands.

Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.