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CYC-Online Issue 71 DECEMBER 2004 / BACK
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anxious moments

Broaching the issue

I have been asked to see Marty. He is an experienced child care worker in our group home and, as I understand, lately he seems to have become “a little sensitive” to the transmission of germs. He has taken to carrying one of those small bottles of antiseptic cream in his pocket and every time he shakes hands with or touches the skin of one of the youth, he immediately pulls out the bottle and rubs some on his hands. The kids are reacting to it, saying that he thinks they are “poisonous”.

I spent a good while anticipating his arrival, wondering what could be behind this behaviour which, understandably, had some of the kids feeling awkward?

We had experienced one or two HIV scares recently when staff had attended to injuries without the now normal procedures relating to blood. Staff had felt uncomfortable about delaying their attention until they had fetched rubber gloves, thinking that the youngsters might interpret this as not caring. Marty had been helpful at the time, explaining the procedures to the kids, reminding them that we are all familiar with doctors and dentists “and even veterinary staff “wearing rubber gloves. But now was Marty being unduly anxious about this?

I checked with the sister that none of the children or youth in Marty’s group was suffering from any infection. Group homes are often veritable encylopaedias of odd childhood conditions like ringworm, sores, warts, burns, head lice, scars, skin rashes ... and staff are always aware of things which are “sore” or “catchy” or needing plasters and bandages. But there was no current epidemic. Nor was there any known case of measles, chicken pox or even STDs ...

For their part, the children and youth we work with are often needy in terms of touch. Many of the younger ones freely slip into a hug, just to feel near to someone, and the daily commerce of the life space is full of physical transactions like hair ruffles, elaborate handshakes, tickles and play-fights. It is easy to see how the kids might react to some stand-offishness on the part of one of the adults.

* * *

In came Marty at exactly 2 pm as invited, his usual friendly, robust self. I had two cardboard cups of coffee from the staff room ready and waiting as necessary props for a discussion which may or may not lead through some difficult territory.

“we’re getting into some risky drinking today, aren’t we?” he asked, looking darkly at the notorious agency coffee.

–Just my way of keeping you here for at least ten minutes,” I laughed.

“What’s up, doc?” he quipped as he heaped sugar into his cup.”Hope you’re having as good a day as I am.”

–Yours is good?”

–I love the afternoon shifts,” he replied. “Space to move about, make a noise, take time, laugh. I’ve worked out a variation on field hockey where we don’t use a field and the players can use anything except hockey sticks ... brooms, walking sticks, feet, planks ... and the ball we use is a huge red three-feet diameter beach ball. Each play lasts about twenty seconds before everyone is in stitches and the umpire (that’s me) has to restore order and start again. The aim of the game is to get tired quickly and head for the canteen. Imaging trying that in the evening shift!”

We both laughed. I could not fit this inventive, active and fun person with the reason he was here to see me. I sipped on my coffee.

–Marty, there’s a question,” I began.

–Ask away.”

I explained what had been reported to me and how some of the kids were feeling about it. He listened carefully, and then shook his head slowly.

–Hey,” he began. “First, thanks for bringing it up. If you’d all been polite about it I might never have realised it was an issue. Second, true. It is me, I have been sensitive about it and I have been using the cream all the time. It’s eczema which I appear to have inherited. It flares up like crazy at this time of the year. My skin cracks and, for one thing, it’s sore and my skin has to be kept moist, and, second, it leaves my hands particularly open to infection “from everything, not from the kids. My doctor suggested wearing cotton gloves, but, well hell, can you imagine?”

We looked at each other, grinning.

–It’s not catchy,” he informed me, “it’s no risk to anyone but me, I didn't know what else to do. What do you think?”

–You know what I think?” I replied. “Get some gloves, hell if you were playing baseball or boxing or golfing or cricket or rowing you’d wear gloves; they can be pretty sporty. And tell the kids about it. you'll get absolutely no sympathy from them, but at least they’ll know.”



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