THIS NORMAL LIFE: Famous germophobes

“Try to avoid enclosed places with a lot of people,” my doctor advised. “And don’t shake hands. That’s the most common way to pick up a bacterium or virus.”

Michael Jackson (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Michael Jackson
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I recently joined some dubious celebrity company. Among my companions are Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes, Cameron Diaz and Donald Trump.
What do we have in common? We all suffer from mysophobia.
That’s an irrational fear of germs.
Trump, for example, is so germophobic that Newsweek reported last year that he “needs to drink through a straw because he wants to avoid contamination,” and that he washes his hands “as much as possible.”
Jackson famously wore surgical masks and gloves in public.
Hughes would lock himself in his “germ-free” hotel room for months at a time.
My mysophobia is less obsessive, more practical and hopefully quite temporary. Blame it on the cancer.
When I started chemotherapy, I asked my doctor whether I could go out in public. The concern is that chemo wrecks your immune system. So if you catch a common cold or a stomach bug, rather than simply stay in bed to recuperate, you could wind up in the emergency room getting pumped full of antibiotics.
“Try to avoid enclosed places with a lot of people,” my doctor advised. “And don’t shake hands. That’s the most common way to pick up a bacterium or virus.”
“Sure, I can do that,” I replied confidently. But in reality, it was a lot easier said than done.
In particular, I now had to figure out a whole new way to greet people along with a litany of clever excuses to use when someone extends a hand.
I could have just blurted out, “I’m not shaking hands because I have cancer.” But that’s not always a discussion I’m ready to have, especially with strangers.
My more discreet response: “I’m not feeling well, so I’m not shaking hands right now.” First of all, it’s true. And it makes me seem like I’m more concerned about the health of the other person.
A few weeks ago, my wife, Jody, and I were invited to a Shabbat dinner at the home of some new friends. We didn’t know any of the other people there, which meant I’d have plenty of opportunity to practice my new line.
“That’s very considerate of you,” said Mark, one of the guests, as I kept my hands firmly at my side.
But when it turned out we were seated next to each other at the dinner table, Mark started to squirm. He moved his chair slightly away from me.
“Just how, you know, contagious are you?” he asked hesitantly.
“Oh, I’m not contagious,” I admitted. “I’m worried about getting sick from you!” I then explained about the chemotherapy, and I saw his expression morph from apprehension about his own health to compassion for the cancer guy.
With friends who know what I’m going through, I’ve developed a special kind of greeting: the “elbow bump.” Rather than extend a palm, I jut out my right elbow. We do a little dance and have a laugh, which gives me the chance to explain what it means to have a neutrophil count of only 1.4.
“If you do shake someone’s hand, just avoid touching your face afterward,” my doctor said.
I’d have to be a pretty flexible yogi to bring my elbow all the way to my mouth.
There have been a few times where I had no choice but to shake hands. Once, I was interviewed about my book by a Swedish journalist who covers electric cars. We were at an Aroma café.
I decided up front that cancer didn’t need to be part of that conversation.
“Excuse me for a moment, I need to use the toilet before we start our chat,” I said. I then quickly washed my hands. I figured his Scandinavian politeness wouldn’t begrudge me that favor.
Not that restrooms are the cleanest places. The website TravelMath tested the surfaces in an average hotel room to find out which were the “germiest.” The bathroom counter topped the list with 1,288,817 CFUs (that’s “colony-forming units”) per square inch.
Running a close second: the TV remote control. Interestingly, three-star hotels came in considerably less germy than five-star properties.
Being a germophobe can be crazy-making. Once, I had an appointment in downtown Jerusalem. Normally, I’d drive, but Jody needed the car that day. I planned to take a taxi. Just as I got to the main street, though, an Egged bus that would take me right where I needed to go arrived.
It wouldn’t take much longer on the bus, I thought to myself, and it would cost so much less than a cab. I hopped on.
Immediately, I realized I’d made a mistake. As I scanned the vehicle packed with people, windows closed, I imagined myself aboard a rolling Petri dish of bacteria, all gunning for my white blood cell-deficient system. If I could just get to a seat and keep my hands to myself....
The bus lurched forward and I had no choice but to grab one of the bug-infested poles. I sat down, defeated and anticipating my coming hospital stay.
When it was time to press the button for my stop, I tried valiantly to use my elbow. A teenager who was standing nearby regarded me quizzically and made what I imagine were some cursory conclusions, before kindly using her gloriously non-immuno-compromised finger to do what had so terrified this unintended mysophobe.
I washed my hands like Trump when I got home. The ER, thankfully, hasn’t seen me yet.

The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com