Vexations and Conundrums

By Katina Pontikes

A Sterile Conscience

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Finally. The highly awaited vaccines are slowly making their way into human arms. The last year has felt like the longest of my life, longer even than the nine months when I was pregnant with my son, and I thought the delivery day was never going to come. Of course, it did. And those vaccines are being delivered, just not as fast as we all hoped. Safety measures continue.

I had a friend over for an outside visit recently and we discussed how we keep safe.  She is a retired nurse and shared her history with masking and sanitizing practices in the operating rooms in which she had worked. She recalled the rigorous washing procedure the surgeons would complete prior to operations. Our twenty seconds of soapy, hot-water washing is amateurish compared to what doctors go through in preparation for cutting into the human body. She reminded me of that interesting way they hold their arms aloft after scrubbing and donning their surgical gear.

She sat up enthusiastically, looked at me and said, “You know we had a term to guide us in the O.R. We called it a sterile conscience.” I loved the phrase, the way it implied faultlessness, the high standard it inferred. She explained further that if anyone in the operating room witnessed someone who had already scrubbed down make a move that might contaminate them, they had an obligation to call out the behavior. The person who had erred had to start over with their scrubbing and disinfecting. As an example, she explained, “So if the doctor scratched his or her nose, I would have to gently say that they had broken sterility.” This was what was meant by the term a sterile conscience

I have thought much about this lately as we continue to wash frequently, mask and disinfect surface areas. My husband and I just became fully vaccinated and waited the two weeks to be immunized. We wanted to celebrate and go out to eat at a restaurant. To gently get back to civilization, we decided on a ridiculously early dinner, with another vaccinated couple. I reserved a table for 4:00 pm, knowing we would have the place to ourselves.

As we entered the restaurant, my husband kindly held the door open for our party.  I mentally registered that he touched the door handle with his bare hands. “Scrub time,” my inner voice stated. I whispered to him that he might want to wash up prior to our bread arriving, since he had opened the door for everyone. His grimace told me he did not feel rewarded for his courtesy. I mentally reminded myself to add portable alcohol wipes to my purse for such future moments.

We kept our masks handy so that when waitstaff approached we could don a mask to protect them. They all were masked. The evening was lovely and light. All of us felt like children at the carnival. The wine probably helped the festive sensation.  The only thing missing was flashing carrousel lights and music. We all laughed at how much we appreciated our first dinner out in a year, offering toasts, as we admitted how much we had missed this simple pleasure.

We took a bit too long to eat, because suddenly other diners, not as careful as us, were arriving. Masks were removed before people had even been seated, and hugging was plentiful. My husband looked at me and said sotto voce, “Time to go.”

We have eaten outside twice at restaurants now, carefully selecting establishments with safety protocols. One Chinese restaurant sprayed Everclear (95% alcohol) on us, including the bottoms of our shoes, after first taking our temperatures. These steps were taken before entering the restaurant. No menus were distributed, and we read the offerings from a chalkboard. I was impressed.

I never anticipated I would give such consideration to safe dining measures. That was before I developed my sterile conscience.


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