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Grief to grace: Loss of son drives mother's message
'If health care isn't personal — what is?'
It is no small sign of hard-earned wisdom that the mother who has lost a loved one to a health care-associated infection (HAI) doesn't want to be cast in angry hues, decrying the failure of a health system that took her 27-year-old son Josh along with some 100,000 other patients felled by infection in 2006.
"It's not about blame; about who caused this," says Victoria Nahum, who co-founded the Safe Care Campaign (www.safecarecampaign.org) after the death of her son. "It's about the good part of health care — saving people's lives. People do things for their reasons. You can throw numbers and statistics and data at them all day long; but if it doesn't strike a chord within them to make them want to change their own behavior, then really it's worthless."
Nahum is trying to strike that chord. In moving from grief to a kind of grace, she has become a compelling speaker at infection control and health care quality meetings, adding a much-needed humanity to all the benchmarks and numbers that typically obscure the true cost of HAIs. "We wanted to put a real face on what an infection really is," she says. "It really is a person, and it really is a family dealing with the loss of a family member. What [health care workers] tell me is that it reminds them of the original reason that they got into health care to begin with."
Josh Nahum broke his femur and fractured his skull in a skydiving accident in 2006, which he initially recovered from before developed an infection during rehabilitation. A lumbar puncture revealed bacteria — Enterobacter aerogenes — in his cerebral spinal fluid. Within just a few hours of being diagnosed, the infection caused so much pressure on his brain that it pushed part of it into his spinal column, damaging his spinal cord and ending his ability to breathe on his own, she explains.
'These are not isolated incidents'
"A week after Josh had died, my husband was inconsolable," she recalls. "He would sit on the couch, looking down, and hardly even talk. I knew that we had to go through a grieving process — there was a lot of quiet in our house. My reaction, other than a lot of tears, was to help my husband and find out what happened."
Strangely enough, the Nahums had other family members infected in different hospitals during the months preceding the fatal infection. Including Josh, the infections involved three different hospitals in three different states. "That's when I realized that these are not isolated incidents," she says. "These kinds of infections had to be happening everywhere at a huge rate in order to affect my family that way. It's not just one hospital; it was happening with good physicians and good care."
Researching the issue, Nahum decided to focus her campaign — her painful message — on one critical theme: hand hygiene. She urges health care workers to perform a simple, "lifesaving act": Wash their hands before touching patients. As IPs are well aware, it is estimated that this cardinal principle of infection prevention is practiced appropriately less than half the time during patient encounters.
"If I don't do anything else, just me banging that hand hygiene drum potentially will save 40% of the people who might get sick and die," she says.
Having gone through such a grueling personal journey serves as evidence that true change is inner work. "Every time when we think about a behavior change, whether it's stopping smoking cigarettes or getting on a health regimen — that can never come from without," says Nahum, who lives in Atlanta. "It always has to begin inside of ourselves. That's what I think the message is [to health care workers]. They are personalizing what this really means and thinking, 'What if it happens to my family?' If health care isn't personal — what is?"