WHAT’S THAT SMELL?
June 28, 2018

The use of olfaction (smelling) is one of the oldest human senses.  We can identify many situations, places, and even people, just by their smell.  For example, most people can remember what the smell was like in grandma’s house or even what their mother’s clothes smelled like.  I can remember going to the shore as a child with my family and as soon as we got a few miles from the ocean you could smell it.

Our ability to smell, however, does not hold a candle to other animals.  Rhino’s for example have very poor eye sight but are able to smell intruders of their territory just by their aroma.  Who has not been impressed by the blood hound’s ability to locate other animals and people just by their odors?  Remember the scenes in many movies where the blood hound is given a piece of clothing to smell and then races off to find someone lost in the woods.

Smell probably evolved as a protective mechanism for many animals.  Like the rhino and others, if they could not hear or see a would-be attacker they could smell them and know they were nearby.  If you ever had the occasion to see a movie, which I consider a classic, called “Quest for Fire” you know just how important the sense of smell was for early man.  Of course, the thought of someone being able to smell my body odor for long distances and needing to stay down wind when approaching an enemy so as not to be detected makes me really appreciate deodorant soap.

This preamble now brings me to my basic gripe.  My earliest recollection of the smell inside a hospital was one of antiseptic cleanliness.  Alcohol was in the air. When I first started in the doctor business and frequented hospitals, making rounds and seeing patients there was a certain smell which conveyed the idea of sterility.  Walking the halls one could smell the attempt at antiseptic and antimicrobial protection, which was splashed on wall and floors laced generously at times with the occasional bowel movement or vomit (urine really didn’t count).  I can remember a common deodorizer with an orange smell which was used with impunity to cover up fecal odors.  The resulting fragrance was one of oranges sitting on top of a pile of human dung, with the orange odor only serving to warn you to watch your step.

Many hospitals now, in an attempt to seem more user friendly, have put coffee bars and sandwich shops in the lobbies.  Now when I enter my hospital I am greeted with the aroma of coffee and fresh baked cookies.  By the smell we would never know we were entering a building filled with contagion and disease and where the odor of human excrement was commonplace, tolerated best by seasoned professionals made nose blind to the aroma by years of experience. Outsiders believe they are entering a happy place and are sometimes taken back by the scourge of the orange cloud when they walk the hallways.

This is an opportunity for companies that make Glade, Air Wick and Fabreeze.  We need to begin spraying the true aroma of a hospital as soon as visitors enter the door. Let their olfactory sense tell them that this is no ordinary coffee shop and that just a few feet away disease is present.  I suggest we use plug-ins placed strategically in the lobby and hallways leading to the patient care areas to get visitors ready for the olfactory trauma that awaits.

Let’s get back to using our sense of smell for good and not evil.  Like most abilities, if you don’t use it, you loose it. Smell you soon.

Lung Disease Center of Central Pennsylvania
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