The Germ Girl: My Journey to Becoming the Germinator

Tricia Holderman (The Germ Girl) and Mr. Clean

When I was a kid, if somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said a princess or the President. There was zero chance I would have said my dream was to become the Germ Girl. And yet here I am, CEO of a corporation that has two regional branches in two different states and handles infection prevention for major hospitals, professional sports teams and arenas, and countless large and small businesses and luxury homes across the country. Which I suppose makes me more than just a Germ Girl—it makes me more like the Germ-inator. My childhood self would have been impressed, although maybe a little confused. Who dreams of busting germs when they grow up?

Honestly, looking back, the signs were there early on. When I was 17, I was working as an aerobics teacher to make money for college. I liked teaching aerobics, but where I really shone was in between classes. That’s when I would wipe down all the equipment to get ready for the next group to come in. A typical teenager would have done the absolute least amount of work possible in that situation—but apparently I wasn’t typical. Because I did a really careful, meticulous job. Not only did I wipe down all the equipment, I cleaned all the mirrors so they were perfectly shiny and streak-free.

It turned out that I was so good at cleaning, other people noticed. One of the ladies in one of my classes was so impressed with my mirror-wiping abilities, she asked me if I would come over and clean the mirrors in her house, along with the rest of the place. I jumped at the opportunity! As for my college career, I went for one semester, came home for Christmas break, cleaned for clients again, and never went back to school. That invitation to clean one woman’s house blossomed into a career that has spanned 42 years…and counting.

However, I didn’t go from summer job to CEO just because of my ability to produce a smudge-free mirror, impressive as it was (and still is). The real reason was my health. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and landed in the hospital with sepsis. In case you aren’t a medical expert or have never experienced it, sepsis is the body’s extreme response to an infection.

That was when my war on germs officially began.

That first bout with sepsis turned out to be the start of what wound up being a three-year nightmare, during which I was in and out of the hospital and underwent something like forty surgeries. Some of it was just a natural result of my condition—if you have Crohn’s or know anyone who does, you know it’s not a lot of fun. But sometimes, the reason I was so sick was because of infections. Which meant it wasn’t my Crohn’s that was landing me in the hospital again and again. It was germs.

When I realized that, I started asking myself if there were things I could do to protect myself from the germs that were causing my infections. And since I was the head of a business that specialized in cleaning, and I was stuck in a hospital bed with nothing more to do than look around, I tuned in to my environment for clues. It turned out there were quite a few red flags waving right there in front of me.

For starters, my IV pole was covered with fingerprints and had a layer of dust on top. I couldn’t help wondering, When was the last time someone cleaned that thing? As a person who cleans things for a living, I know if something isn’t visually clean, it can’t possibly be clean. That dirty IV pole was my first indication that I was not in an environment where cleanliness was a top priority.

Beyond that, I also couldn’t understand how the staff decided which surfaces would be cleaned, and how often, and which ones would not be cleaned at all. They changed my sheets every day, which was totally unnecessary in terms of keeping me safe from germs. But they almost never wiped down the table over my bed, which collected germs every time someone touched it. The bathroom, which even a child knows can be a breeding ground for germs, was given a sort of wipe down, but there was no actual cleaning going on. And this was happening in a hospital, where unsanitary conditions might really kill somebody.

More importantly, I was worried they might kill me.

That’s why I became the Germ Girl. I learned everything I could about infection prevention as a matter of survival, at a time when there wasn’t all that much to learn. There was no university degree in infection prevention on the human side or the facility side, although that may change now that the Covid pandemic has people thinking about germs and staying safe from them in a different way. My odyssey started back in the eighties, when “cleaning” still meant wiping everything down with a mixture of bleach and water. As my knowledge expanded, I got involved in the development of new, safer, more effective cleaning solutions. I wound up being named to Procter and Gamble’s advisory board for commercial products when I was just thirty-three years old—something that almost never happens. Along the way, I also earned a certificate of mastery in infection prevention, cementing my transition from Germ Girl to full-fledged Germinator.

Today, I use my experiences during that three-year nightmare to help my clients understand infection prevention from a patient perspective. As someone who’s been there, I know the havoc germs can wreak on people’s lives. That’s why I’ve made it my personal mission to help keep people safe, in the hospital and beyond.

I may not have planned to be the Germinator when I was a kid, but today, I consider it an honor.