Saturday, March 18, 2006

A tipping point

“Some day, we may look back at this and say it represented a tipping point in public consciousness.”

That is a message I received yesterday from my colleague Peter McGinn, PhD, who is the President and CEO of United Health Services in Binghamton, NY. Peter copied me on an e-mail that he sent to his staff about an obituary that appeared in a Canadian newspaper five months ago.

In reprinting the obituary, I repeat Peter’s words to his staff: “Please read this very carefully – all the way through.”

On October 30, 2005, David Williamson Milne passed away at Kingston General Hospital after a battle with hospital-acquired infections. He was loved and is deeply missed by many.

David Milne was the kind of person that you got to know, and like, quickly. His friends were among society’s small and society’s great, and he treated each with equal respect and appreciation. His Scottish humor and laugh were infectious. Even in his last days he could make us laugh.

His family was the joy of his life and sustained him throughout. As the youngest of a large Manitoba farm family, he was his mother’s joy and primary recipient of her loving largess. He wedded his first love and childhood sweetheart, Catherine, who followed him from posting to posting, with one and then two children, Catherine Jr. and Jacqueline.

As a long-service pilot in the Canadian Armed Forces David Milne’s life was not without risk, but risk balanced in an equation with skill. His heart surgery was a risk, but it was balanced against the outstanding skill of Dr. Hamilton at Kingston General Hospital. The surgery was successful and Dave’s recovery was preceding well, thanks to the care of the KGH staff. Unfortunately, a series of hospital-acquired infections set back his progress and ultimately caused his premature passing.

Every year hospital-acquired infections cause or contribute to the death of more people than breast cancer, heart disease, and car accidents combined. Most of these infections are initiated by otherwise caring healthcare workers who forget or neglect to clean their hands.

And for each of those who, like our friend David, succumb to one of these unnecessary infections, there are many more who ache for their loss. These are not numbers on month-end reports. These are our fathers, our mothers, our children, and our dear friends, who are dying prematurely because of unclean hands. The little bit of extra time that it takes for healthcare workers to wash or to use an alcohol sanitizer is pittance compared to the waste of so many productive, loved and loving lives.

In honour and memory of David Williamson Milne a donation will be made in his name to the Community and Hospital Infection Control Association of Canada. His family and his extended group of friends openly urge those at Kingston General Hospital as well as healthcare workers everywhere to clean their hands before and after every patient contact. It is absolutely a matter of life and death.

Farewell to a dear husband, father and friend.