Nature is Trying to Kill Us

By Rachel Critelli

Margarita Bekker explained how healthcare interpreters can protect themselves and others from transmissible diseases on the job.

Bekker reminds her audience that even healthy individuals need to guard against infection.

Bekker reminds her audience that even healthy individuals need to guard against infection. Photo Credit: Judit Marin

The NCTA hosted Margarita Bekker for a lively presentation entitled “Infection Control and Industrial Safety for Interpreters” as part of its Continuing Education workshop series. Bekker began by telling us if we learned nothing else from her presentation, we should remember this: “Nature is trying to kill us. Wash your hands and vaccinate your children.” With that rousing introduction, we started right in.

Why protect yourself?

Hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other locations where public services are provided can be major points of contact for transmissible diseases. It might seem unnecessary to convince readers that they don’t want to become infected. Yet there seems to be a common misconception that getting sick can be good for you, the idea being that the more microbes your immune system encounters, the stronger it will become. In reality, this is not true.

Bekker shared her personal account of suffering from mumps: getting sick was not only unpleasant but also harmful to her long-term health. It took years for her immune system to regain its original strength, and she later developed autoimmune issues. Measles has a similar effect: in a phenomenon referred to as immune amnesia, it essentially wipes out the patient’s immune system, leaving it vulnerable to all other pathogens. Many viral and bacterial infections can wreak havoc on the immune system: the common saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” does not apply to illnesses.

And remember: you might have a robust immune system that is able to fight off most infections, but others might not be so lucky. When a healthy human body encounters a pathogen, the immune system suppresses the infection, but that person becomes a carrier—one who harbors a pathogen without experiencing the symptoms of illness. Carriers can transmit infectious agents to others. When a carrier comes into contact with a person with a weakened immune system, that person is at a greater risk for contracting the infection.

In the general population, infants and older adults are likely to have weak immune systems: infants may not have been fully vaccinated, and older adults have less active immune systems and cannot be revaccinated. However, in a healthcare environment, a greater number of people may have weakened immune systems, including patients preparing for organ implantation or explantation, suffering from HIV/AIDS, undergoing chemotherapy, or suffering from severe burns. To protect vulnerable people in our community and under our care, it is important to take personal measures not only to avoid infection but also to avoid becoming a carrier.

How to protect yourself and others

Getting specific vaccinations, maintaining good hand hygiene, and practicing basic proper health habits can provide effective protection against the spread of dangerous pathogens.

Get vaccinated. The first, and most important, measure to take is to make sure that you have been vaccinated and that your vaccinations are still effective. Check your medical records and ask your doctor for a blood titer to check whether your old vaccines are still active. Be certain you are covered. And don’t forget to get the flu vaccine each fall!

Be aware of your surroundings. Contractors should know where to find the Office of Occupational Health in each hospital in case of exposure to blood or needles. Read all signage and take the appropriate precautions before entering a room..

Protect personal items. Leave purses, bags, and any other personal items away from areas where patients are seen; use biobags around clipboards and cell phones. Wear appropriate clothing in the hospital, including closed-toe shoes. Change out of your hospital garments as soon as possible to avoid contaminating your home or other areas.

Practice good hand hygiene. Wear gloves, remove them using the appropriate technique, then wash your hands if organic matter is present (gel is okay to use for disinfection if hands have no organic matter on them). Use the proper hand-washing method: wet hands, use regular soap to scrub for 20 seconds, then rinse; open bathroom door with paper towels to avoid contamination. Avoid touching surfaces in patient areas to avoid excessive contact with potential contamination.

Use personal protective equipment (PPE) correctly. Use personal protective equipment appropriate to the situation: face masks in droplet precaution areas; face shields where bodily fluids are present; and lead gowns, thyroid covers, and dosimeters where radiation is present. For safety, assume all PPE is contaminated. Search YouTube for videos on the specific PPE you are using to learn more about proper handling techniques.

Rachel CritelliRachel Critelli is a Mandarin Chinese translator and healthcare interpreter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently enrolled in the Healthcare Interpreter Program at the City College of San Francisco, set to graduate in Spring 2020. Italian-American by blood, Rachel enjoys studying all things language and traveling to China. To learn more about Rachel, visit her website: