Karen Garloch

Message to health grads: Wash your hands

Victoria Nahum had one simple message for May graduates from the Carolinas College of Health Sciences at Carolinas Medical Center.

“Wash your hands before and after touching a patient, each and every time.”

Why is Nahum, the speaker from Atlanta, so focused on handwashing?

Because her 27-year-old stepson died from a hospital-acquired infection while recovering from a skydiving accident in Colorado in 2006.

Because Nahum's father-in-law developed bacterial pneumonia in 2005, two days after leaving a Rochester, N.Y., hospital, where he received care after a heart attack.

And because Nahum herself has survived a staph infection that developed after breast implant surgery.

For her 40th birthday, Nahum got the implants as a gift to herself. She was pleased with the surgery, but within a year, started having unexplained symptoms. She had less energy than usual. Her joints ached. And she developed recurring “mini-fevers.”

“I wandered from doctor to doctor trying to figure it out. Was it arthritis? Was it chronic fatigue syndrome? Did I have cancer?”

A rheumatologist suggested it might be autoimmune disease triggered by the implants. “Fine,” she said. “Let's take them out.”

Her Atlanta surgeon said implants couldn't make her sick. But when he took them out in March 2006 – six years after she got them – he found the bacteria on one of the implants and in her chest.

“Mystery solved,” she remembers him saying.

Six months later, her stepson died.

That's when she started putting it all together.

“Three different members of my family became infected with … infections in three different hospitals in three different states,” she said. “I went to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and said, ‘What is this?'”

She learned that hospital-acquired infections are an increasing problem, and that most states don't require hospitals to report them.

“It's not like it was one bad hospital,” she said. “The same thing was happening over and over throughout the country.”

She also learned that most infections can be prevented if those who touch patients simply wash their hands before and after each encounter.

In response, Nahum and her husband, Armando, founded Safe Care Campaign to consolidate information about hospital-acquired infections.

She is co-producing a patient safety film with the CDC.

It will be distributed to every U.S. hospital to encourage patients to make sure their caregivers wash their hands.

It will repeat the message Nahum carries across the country: “Change One Thing, Change Everything: The Power of One.”