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Friday, October 19, 2007


by Helen Tzagoloff

The valuable lesson of handwashing before and between examining each patient is today honored mostly in the breach.
--New York Times, June 20, 1995

Numerous studies have shown that busy hospital workers disregard basic standards of handwashing more than half the time.
--New York Times, October 17, 2007

Women in the streets begged
the police to leave them alone --
Viennese hospitals were certain death.
Better here in a muddy ditch,
or sewer with rats.

Why were the women dying
after giving birth in the hospital,
but not at home in the absence of
the latest in medical care?
asked young Doctor Semmelweis,
observing his fellow doctors and
students examining sick women,
examining their corpses, examining
healthy women, examining them sick,
examining their corpses, examining
healthy women, coming back
to examine them sick or dead.

Gentlemen, he said, if you would
wash your hands, mothers would
live to care for their babies.

His superiors scoffed, told him to stop
this nonsense about washing hands.
They couldn’t waste their valuable time
on something unpreventable. A miasma
settled in the wombs and did away
with society's undesirables, women
unfit to be mothers. Doctors must not
interfere with nature's way.

Helen Tzagoloff has worked as a microbiologist and often writes on subjects related to science and medicine. Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Blueline, New York Quarterly, PMS and other journals. She was the First Place Winner in the Icarus International 2002 Competition in honor of the Wright brothers. She lives in New York City.