Surgical Spirit: The Patron Saint of Hand Washing

"Your Father in heaven... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).

"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday dear Ignatz, Happy Birthday to you."

Sung twice through whilst lathering up at the sink, I contemplate the advent of soap, the nightmare of coronavirus and the pioneering work of a hand-hygiene hero, Ignatz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis lived in Vienna in the mid-nineteenth century and was the director of what was then the world’s biggest maternity hospital. He oversaw two wards (one run by doctors and medical students, one by midwives) and soon noticed an appalling disparity between them. Women on the doctors’ ward were dying at an alarming rate and far more than those attended by midwives. Nearly all deaths were due to puerperal (child-bed) fever - a painful, putrid, fever-wracked death, usually within days of giving birth. Semmelweis postulated that the doctors were transferring ‘morbid particles’ from the post-mortem room to the obstetric ward. Some thought him crazy and were offended at the thought that they needed to wash their hands, but Semmelweis persisted. In 1847, thorough hand cleansing and disinfecting became the norm and the death rate plummeted. Today the World Health Organisation calls him a ‘hero of global health’.

As a recipient of good obstetric care myself, I am very thankful for the NHS. It is an example of the wonderful ‘common grace’ of God. We might include advances in chemotherapy, infection control and vaccination programmes, but I am also talking about rain and sunshine, health and strength, the love of friends and family – all the undeserved blessings that God showers on the whole of humankind. Not least is his restraining hand so that sin and its repercussions are not allowed free rein. That surely would be hell on earth. We take so much for granted, healthcare included, and this can make us sadly ungrateful. One difficult patient was attended four times a day by the district nurse but wrote to complain that she was usually late.

To think about:

Am I grateful for advances in medical science, public sanitation and good health care? Am I more likely to send a letter of complaint or a letter of thanks? How can I express my gratitude both to God and the district nurse?

Ruth Eardley is a GP and member of Affinity partner Little Hill Church, Leicester. She writes a regular piece for her church entitled 'Surgical Spirit'. We have been given permission to reproduce some of them. This is her latest contribution.


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