Corbella: How I stayed healthy when my immune system was down

Postmedia columnist Licia Corbella says washing your hands is important, but its also important to be mindful of how you use your hands in public spaces. Stock/ Getty

As the world braces for the coronavirus pandemic to run rampant across the globe, I feel I have a few handy tips on how to stay virus free.

I had a less-than-stellar immune system even before I had to go through chemo therapy for triple-negative breast cancer in 2015.

Neutrophils — a type of white blood cell that protect us from infections — are considered to be at a normal level when they are between 1.5 to 8. I started at 0.8 before my first chemo treatment, which would drop to 0.1 after each chemotherapy session.

In other words, my body had no way to fight off an infection and that caused me to wind up in hospital a couple of times, not because I caught a virus, but because the surgical site from the lumpectomy had a slight infection that would flare up as my neutrophils declined.

Thanks to a miracle drug called Neulasta — an expensive injection that I would take the day after each chemo — my neutrophils would increase in the three-week span between chemo sessions to 0.7 just in time to get walloped again.  But my neutrophils never reached normal throughout my cancer treatments.

Despite essentially being neutropenic throughout my chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I never once caught a virus during my whole cancer journey, even when I had to fly — including a long flight to Rome to attend a family funeral and then back again.

What’s astonishing about that, is prior to having cancer and being severely immuno-compromised, I almost always got sick after flying. Not anymore.


So, how did I avoid catching a virus while my immune system was in a long, lazy hibernation? How did I avoid getting sick on long trans-Atlantic flights with coughing passengers, runny-nosed kids and surroundings that are not exactly hygienic?

• First, I became ambidextrous. I’m right handed, but I mindfully trained myself to open all doors with my left hand, something I continue to do. The reason behind that is most involuntary touching of my face — rubbing my eyes, nose or mouth — is done with my dominant hand. As a result, I attempt to avoid touching anything in public settings with my right hand, that includes railings and elevator buttons.

• I use the knuckle of one of my left hand fingers to push elevator buttons. I never use my finger tips.

• I never flush toilets using either of my hands. I use my foot.

• I use the left side of my body — my left shoulder — to push open doors without handles.

• I wash my hands a lot.

• I use a paper towel, after washing my hands in a public washroom to turn door knobs and then I throw it in the nearest wastebasket (ie: not on the floor.)

• I carry hand sanitizer in my purse and in my car.

• I disinfect my cell phone and car steering wheel frequently with alcohol wipes.

• On airplanes I unashamedly disinfect my entire area and that of my travel partner — the seat belt clasp, arm rests, the front and back of my table tray, the light switch, the seat pocket and the headrest. When I read the magazine provided I disinfect my hands afterwards.

• After a flight I try to have a shower within a few hours if that’s possible. If not, I at least change my clothes.

CBC’s program Marketplace took swabbings from various surfaces on airplanes, and believe it or not, the headrest is the filthiest area on a plane. Yuck! The seat pocket was next worse with fecal matter and all sorts of nasty stuff on it, then the washroom door handle, followed by the tray table and the seat belt buckle.

When I had cancer, nurses would put some special, hospital grade wipes — that will literally peel off your skin if you don’t use gloves — in a plastic bag along with some gloves if I had to fly anywhere. I don’t have access to those anymore but I find those alcohol swabs that doctors use prior to giving an injection (available for purchase prior to all this panic buying at most pharmacies) or household disinfecting wipes work just fine.

The interior surfaces of a plane can be dirty, but you can take precautions by wiping them down. ViktorCap / Getty Images/iStockphoto

I know there’s been a run on all of those kinds of items out there but don’t worry. If you can’t find any and you’re going to get on a plane, spray some paper towels with Windex or some other cleaning solution and zip them into a small ziplock bag. That will work.

On Kijiji Calgary some people are taking advantage of the COVID-19 fear and selling 3×4 oz bottles of hand sanitizer for $50 or a 1-litre bottle for $50. Don’t buy it. Just wash your hands.

If you feel like you have the flu, Alberta Health recommends you call HealthLink at 8-1-1. Your symptoms will be assessed and triaged and in the Calgary or Edmonton area, if they think you need to be tested, you will be directed to an assessment centre. In other parts of the province, someone may come to your home to do a swabbing. It’s best that you do NOT go to the emergency room or even your family doctor. You could infect others.

Stay healthy and stop hoarding that toilet paper!

Licia Corbella is a Postmedia columnist in Calgary. [email protected]

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