A Son's Illness Validates a Mom's Worries About Hygiene

Barbara Roberts and son Wesley, a student and football player at Oakton High School.
Barbara Roberts and son Wesley, a student and football player at Oakton High School. (Family Photo)
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Okay, call me a germophobe nut case if you want, but when I went to my 14-year-old son Wes's first high school football game and saw all the boys sharing the same water bottles, I wanted to stand up and scream.

All the moms at our bus stop did, too. When I told them the next day about the dozen or so water bottles and the 70 or so boys who drank from them, there was a moment of stunned, horrified silence, then a loud gasp, then a collective shout: "That is so disgusting!"

My son and my husband (and presumably every other male in the universe who is not a health care provider) were unperturbed. "Oh, Mom, I'm not going to catch anything," Wes said, with his usual teenage rolling of the eyes.

All right, I thought, I'll be a good mom. I won't call the coach at Oakton High and lecture him about communicable diseases and public hygiene. I won't be the mom-who-causes-trouble. I won't make my son be the-boy-who-gets-no-playing-time because he has the-mom-who-causes-trouble. I'll sit down and shut up and retch quietly behind my hand when I see the-boy-who-coughs-his-guts-out take a drink and hand the water bottle to my son.

Then my son came down with infectious mononucleosis, otherwise known as mono. And when I asked the doctor about the incubation period, he told me it was about four to eight weeks. Then he turned to my son, who was lying, half-asleep, on the examining table, and said, "So you know when you started those two-a-day football practices in August, and you were all sharing the same water bottles? That's probably when you picked it up."

I wish I could tell you that I did not shout, "Aha, I told you so!" I wish I could say that I was so concerned for my son's welfare that I did not take one tiny moment to bask in germophobe glory. Alas, even germophobes gloat sometimes.

But a week later, when my son was back at school part time and one of his friends -- a girl who weighs all of about 95 pounds -- greeted him in the hallway with a good-natured whack to the spleen that doubled him over and sent him to the hospital, where he spent two nights in the intensive care unit, I was no longer gloating over my germophobe brilliance. I was simply worrying that my son was going to lose his spleen.

Did you know that mono causes the spleen to become enlarged and highly susceptible to bursting? I didn't know that. Do the football coaches know that? Do the high school principals and school district officials who let the football players all drink from the same water bottles know that? And do they know that there's a pandemic flu lurking on the horizon?

All right, obviously, I have no way of knowing where Wes actually picked up the germs that gave him mono. But I do know this: Although he was, statistically speaking, extremely unlikely to pick up a sexually transmitted disease when he was in fifth or sixth grade, this same school district has been teaching him about the evils of STDs since at least that time. Wouldn't it be a good idea to teach their own staff about the basics of public hygiene? Don't they know that when 70 boys all share the same dozen water bottles, somebody's going to catch something? Don't they know that some of those things can make those boys really sick?

When I was in high school, oh so many years ago, the football teams had a giant jug of water and a giant stack of paper cups. And yeah, somebody had to make sure there were always enough cups, and somebody had to make sure there was a trash can right next to the water jug so that all those cups didn't get thrown on the ground, and somebody had to constantly buy more cups.

But you know what? I would bet there are a whole lot of moms -- and probably even some dads -- just like me, who would gladly supply enormous stacks of cups for every game and every practice, if it meant that our sons would not be the-boys-who-get-no-playing-time because they are lying on their backs, hooked up to IV drips and half-a-dozen monitors in a hospital ICU.

Our children take their good health for granted. But as parents, we know that good health has to be nurtured and guarded. I would hope that our high school coaches and principals and school district officials would more fully understand their role in protecting our children's health, particularly if that protection can be provided as easily as a stack of paper cups.

After her son came down with infectious mononucleosis, Oakton mother Barbara Roberts questions the wisdom of having high school athletes share water bottles .

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