A Small Thing is a Big Thing

A small thing is a big thing. I heard that on TV this morning. It might have sounded a little like crazy talk two months ago. Not so much these days when scoring toilet paper results in celebratory texts.

But really, when you think about it, a small thing is often a big thing. The things that seem too small to acknowledge when life is normal and routine often loom large in retrospect or when viewed through a different lens. A small thing can change everything.


I grew up on a farm with no television set and no nearby neighbors. During summers when I wasn’t outside, I read. For several years, a bookmobile brought books to a highway a couple of miles away. Once that service stopped, my mother would drive me into town on Saturday morning and drop me off at the library to choose books for a week while she went to the grocery store.

One summer I read two books that still stick with me. One was “The Story of Emily Dickinson: I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” by Edna Barth; the other was “The Doctor Who Saved Babies: Ignaz Semmelweis” by Josephine Rich.

Most English classes introduce Emily Dickinson at some point so you’ve probably read at least one of her poems. It’s less likely that you know the name Ignaz Semmelweis, but you are familiar with the results of his work. Around 1846, this Hungarian doctor developed a cleanliness protocol that helped prevent women and children from contracting puerperal fever during and after childbirth. At the time, this infection killed up to a third of those giving birth in hospitals.

Lacking today’s specialization, the same doctor would perform an autopsy and then care for patients. After careful observation and elimination of other possibilities, Dr. Semmelweis hypothesized that doctors were spreading the infection from cadavers to mothers and babies. He further speculated that cleaning the hands in between could prevent this spread of infection. He developed a procedure for coating the hands with a chlorine solution.

The result was a drastic reduction in infection and death in the maternity wards where the procedure was followed. Unfortunately, other doctors resented the implication that they were making patients sick. They opposed implementing the procedure and eventually fired Semmelweis.

While this whole story was fascinating, the reason the book stuck with me was that in the end, Dr. Semmelweis once failed to follow his own protocol and died from the infection he tried so hard to prevent. Whether that detail is documented or fictionalized doesn’t really matter to me. The irony drove home the point that strict adherence to protocol no matter how small is a big thing when it comes to disease transmission.

Reading this book was also a small thing, but it has had a lifetime effect on my behavior. While I don’t view myself as fanatic, I am a conscientious hand washer. I’m also vigilant about handling food in the kitchen to avoid contaminating surfaces and other food with pathogens or allergens. I consistently wash all fruits and vegetables prior to preparing or eating them.

I carry with me a certain wary awareness of my environment. I think about the fact that hundreds of people have touched the tube at the bank drive-through. I wash my hands with soap and water after changing my grandchildren’s diapers. I’m not comfortable just using a diaper wipe. I’ve always turned gloves inside out to remove them. I credit Dr. Semmelweis’ story with cementing this awareness. It is clear to me that one small thing can truly have a long lasting effect.

It can also save lives. Hand washing statistics in the US healthcare system show compliance hovers around 50%. This contributes to the two million hospital contracted infections per year in a normal year. This year, hand hygiene is even more critical.

Listening to media I’m getting a message that many of us are still feeling helpless in the face of this pandemic. We can’t wave a wand and make life go backward, that is true. But that doesn’t mean we have no choices. Perhaps it will help to keep in mind that small things can be big things.

An extra hour of sleep may be all you need to feel more robust. A drive at sunset can remind you that the earth still brings beauty. A bouquet of flowers from your yard can brighten the family dinner table. A word of encouragement can make all the difference to someone who is struggling and feeling unseen and unheard. A $5 donation can provide 5 meals from a food bank. Washing hands, brushing teeth, wearing a mask, and carefully handling food make a significant contribution to good health.

Most of us can do a small thing each day to take care of ourselves, our families, or our community. Those things count. A small spark can ignite a large fire. A small thing can be a big thing!