PHA Tales & Disease Intervention Stories

The PHA lives are never dull and one day is never like the other.  The following are short experiences lived by PHAs, in their own words.

Junior – By Dean Mason

One of the more colorful characters I ever met was Junior, a well-known entrepreneur and “player” in Miami, Florida. Junior was courteous, hairpin neat, jewelry laden, and an immaculate dresser, who drove beautiful new Cadillacs. I was successful in gaining Junior’s trust, which translated into his bringing his 4 to 8 “models” into the 62nd Street Clinic on a regular basis for check-ups.

Junior managed an infamous bar on 79 St., as well as the row houses behind the bar where ladies would take their dates for the evening (hour). Junior agreed that I could conduct serologic tests (I drew blood and performed RPR screenings for syphilis) in the kitchen of one of these row houses, once a month. This was done between 10 PM and 2 AM on a Saturday night. We were extremely successful in identifying early stage syphilis cases during the 1.5 years that this arrangement was in effect.

The interesting thing about Junior was his versatility. He did not drink, smoke or indulge in drugs. It was essential that he close the bar on time and not stay out late on Saturday nights. The reason: Junior was also a church organist.

Motown – By Dick Conlon

Late summer 1975, Detroit Michigan. I received an urgent call from the Emergency Room at Henry Ford Hospital. One of our DIS (disease investigation specialist), Brian Shepard, was in a terrible automobile accident. His car had been broad sided at a high rate of speed by an elderly Detroit resident. They needed me to come to the ER immediately because the victim, Brian, would not allow them to treat his injuries until he could hand over his “pouch” to his supervisor. “No one else is authorized to handle this confidential information,” said Brian. I got there in minutes and was escorted by 5 security guards to the treatment area.

Brian, feeling no pain, cheerfully handed over the pouch, and the doctors proceeded with their care. Also, the medical staff was dying to know what state secrets were contained in the pouch of papers. Names of VD contacts I replied…..Brian was released soon afterward without major complications.

A Newark Character – By Dave Akers

Harold Guerin shines bright in my memory. I recall him on a mid-morning stroll through the new William Street clinic in the early 80’s (a gasoline fire had put paid to the old one). Walking through, he would talk to the investigators, asking if they had any sixes for him, folding up the pinks into his shirt pocket and heading for the field in his pink and white Caddy. Recalcitrant individuals he visited in the field usually turned up the next day in clinic, bright and early. Harold had been the Director of the Welfare Program in Newark, and he freely used his influence there in the cause of public health. He must have been near 80 at that time, and he was a man with considerable style. Dressed in a white suit, panama hat, flower in buttonhole, two-toned brogues, and always packing a revolver, he was always an impressive sight as he pulled up to an address in that large Caddy.

Adding to the gravity of his person was an ear that had been nearly chewed off long ago and not thought of much anymore. He was a delightful and unforgettable Irishman who had style and heft in abundance, and he was a natural on the streets. He often told me that he could talk to Jake Javits on my behalf to have me permanently assigned to Newark, an offer I respectfully declined at least twice.

Pork and Beans – By Dean Mason

One of my more memorable recollections was as a “VD Investigator” in St. Louis, MO., circa 1977. On this rather eventful hot summer day, I chose to wear my new white linen slacks for the first time. I was making a home visit to a lady’s house. She had been identified as a contact to a primary syphilis case that I had been working for several days. Unlike other contacts to the index case, this lady graciously invited me in to her rather unkempt house. It was dark inside but I couldn’t help but notice her dinner table was cluttered with empty or half-empty “Pork-N-Bean” cans. I declined her invitation for water, or “something stronger,” but gratefully accepted a seat on her living room couch to begin the interview process. She agreed to accompany me to the clinic, given the fact she had a history of a secondary rash. I was feeling pretty good about the success of my epidemiologic links as I brought her into the clinic.

Only when I went back to the medical exam area did I begin to take note of the guffaws surrounding me. A clinic nurse was kind enough to ask if I had used my beautiful new pants as a tablecloth, or had I just had an accident? I quickly scurried to the bathroom, took off my white pants and discovered to my horror, “Pork-N-Bean” stains on both back legs, beginning at the knees and extending to the top of the back pant pockets. The greatest concentration was in the buttocks area on both sides. It was obvious my “free meal” was enjoyed while sitting on the couch at my patient’s house. Though subdued for the day, I still did not anticipate the rest of my experience. Returning to my car (in wet pants) at the end of a long, hot, St. Louis day, I climbed into my car and rolled down the windows. The smell was immediate. Smashed beans and juice was engrained in my cloth seats; and I still had a 24 mile drive in rush hour traffic to my home. If you ever invite me to dinner, please do not serve Pork-N-Beans.

Say What?! – By Lee Ann Ramsey

One of my first patients in Lauderhill was deaf. Since I know sign language I was assigned to “conduct” his syphilis interview. It turned out that he didn’t know sign language, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, and didn’t read lips!! I couldn’t hand in a bust interview as one of my first as a PHA so I just started screaming!! The whole office heard me yelling “SIR, EVERYTHING WE TALK ABOUT IS CONFIDENTIAL!!!” Yeah, right!!! Although I had laryngitis after that VERY LONG OI (original interview), I had a contact, an address, and a suspect to boot!!

A Shared Thank You – By Larry Sparks

It was a rare event in Washington D. C., a 23 inch snow fall, in a city that is normally paralyzed by 1 to 2 inches. All Federal offices were closed as were many of the streets. There was nothing to do but relax and wait for the sun. But I didn’t count on two things; one my older and much shorter neighbor and friend, Tony Scardaci, and his absolute compulsion to go to work, and second, my own unhealthy need to be there when my Atlanta lifeline, Elvin Hilyer, would inevitably call my office. I knew he would call with a request and the call would start out with an innocent comment -“Oh, it snowed there?” followed by ” Well, here is what we need.”

I was thinking about calling Atlanta from home when Tony called and said he would be trying to get to the Parklawn Bldg. and would I want a ride to the train station. I’m not sure why I found myself saying yes, although I knew he had that old ugly yellow Mercury that might be heavy enough to make it. 

Many of you may remember Tony’s car and it’s black speckled vinyl roof. The reason I think you might remember it is that when it was beyond dead, he sold it to his friend Windell Bradford. The amazing part was that although the car only lasted six months, Windell somehow still considered Tony a friend. All went as planned and there I was, maybe one of 10 people in the Humphrey Bldg., most of whom were guards. The call came from Elvin as predicted, but the request was a little different. It seems that Dr. Sewer had just called Atlanta from the Justice Department where he was being deposed by an army of lawyers on the Swine Flu program and he needed some documents. After getting them by fax, I set off to the Department of Justice. It was a strange but beautiful trip with no traffic and the only place to walk was in the middle of the street. I was a little apprehensive about walking into the large paneled conference room full of more three piece suits than I had seen outside of a funeral home. It was a formal legal proceeding and I didn’t want to be disruptive so I simply found Dr. Sencer, quietly handed him the documents, and retreated to the door. Before I got there he said to the room at large…” and that is a Public Health Advisor.”

It was a most unexpected compliment and one I’ve always wanted to share. I’m sure he wasn’t thanking me just for that piece of paper or for that matter just me. He was thanking all those Public Health Advisors who worked their hearts out on Swine Flu and many other programs during his leadership. So, I’m passing his compliment on to all of you who clearly earned it and thanking you for that moment.

Yellow Submarine – By Anonymous

In the late summer of 1983, I relocated from my floating home in Puerto Rico to New York City, to begin my career with CDC as a Sexually Transmitted Disease Investigator in the South Bronx. I was teaching SCUBA off the coast of Humacao on a 60’ sloop charter, a proper sailing vessel, when I was allured to a want-ad calling for bilinguals (with excellent people skills) to begin a career with the federal government in disease prevention and control…

My salary was about $15,000 then…barely enough to feed me after paying my rent—in a rent-controlled apartment! Fortunately, I learned how to play basic guitar in college and took to street performing as a way to earn some extra cash, which usually went to feeding myself at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant.

One of the easiest and most popular songs to play was Yellow Submarine, which I sang to the masses of humanity exiting the “A” train at 181st Street and Broadway.

Little did I realize that I would become a featured guest twenty-one years later, and asked to perform the same song to my nephew at his first birthday party–[July 24, 2004]. This time, I will perform for free – and the honor of a baby’s smile.

I remember – By Ed Powers

I Remember:

In 1963, a college newspaper article: a recent graduate did immunizations with CDC in Africa. An observer noted – the added lifespan of the newly immunized made them more likely to die from starvation or civil war than a vaccine-preventable disease.

A 1964 interview, a letter on official USPHS stationery – Venereal Disease Control. A choice – Harrisburg, PA or NYC? My NYC experience was limited to the NJ PATH tubes and the Peppermint Lounge – I chose Harrisburg.

Chelsea clinic – the see-through mirror; the Chelsea Hotel.

Harrisburg detectives bracing me in the home of a 16 year old girl at 9:00 PM.

First plane ride – a prop job to Minneapolis-St. Paul; meeting Dr. William J. Brown at one of the national seminars. “It is better to have a VD Investigator waiting for a syphilis case than to have a syphilis case waiting for a VD Investigator”.

I Remember

Lancaster, PA, a grid map to locate homes to survey about Polio. Virgil Peavy.

Migrant blood testing near Gettysburg: long lines shifted when a novice botched a vein. Filled Shepherd tubes in the refrigerator next to baby formula.

Pittsburgh: sharing fortified wine on a scorching radiator in a gas station to “fit in”. Driving from the Hill to the Forbes Avenue VD Clinic with a station wagon full of mechanics. The North Side Go-Go bar at 1:00 AM. Sweet potato pie in Homewood-Brushton.

Martin Luther King died – my black colleague warned me not to stop if we had to run; he was coming right over my back if I did. My other black colleague, my FLS, checking with my wife to make sure she and our kids were safe while I was away.

A TB interview in NYC – but we couldn’t be reimbursed for miles driven outside of Pennsylvania.

I Remember:

Newark, 1968. Dirt floors and heroin.

“Red Dog” epidemiology.

Two days looking for 125 Norfolk Street – it was 125 North Fourth Street – an Alabama native in Newark said: “Nawff Ffawth Squwreet”.

Tony Imperiale, a tank in a neighborhood, Hugh Addonizio, LeRoi Jones before his name change, Mayor Kenneth Gibson, Rodex watches for sale cheap. Dashikis and the Little Red Book.

The unforgettable Runyonesque characters of the Newark City VD clinic at 102 William Street. Ten men in a cubicle; one command heard over the partition: “Drop ‘em. All I wanta’ see are elbows and assholes.” Procaine penicillin reactions – men with bare buttocks with a needle projecting, pants around ankles, horrid premonitions of death – that cleared the clinic waiting room instantly.

Skin clinic – a doctor’s advice to a patient with a likely skin cancer: “Go over to Martland’s ER and lay on the floor until they take care of you”.

I Remember:

NYC – a supreme labor lesson: you do not furlough the Shop Steward.

A City car crushed between two floors on a parking elevator.

The lad who called after the stolen City care was retrieved – could he pick up the TV sets he left in the trunk?

Forgetting to specify bi-lingual when advertising for Spanish speakers – no one to interview the applicants.

The atypical CDC Program Reviewer: “I don’t think I need to see your quarterly narratives; I just spent two days in four of your VD clinics.  Let me tell you what your staff is doing.”

The book “Darkfields of Venus”. The Museum exhibit on VD.

The HR person at CDC – “Do you mean to tell me that you’re hiring known HOMOSEXUALS?”

The Program Coordinator at a Senior Staff Meeting: “I’m thinking of renting the Playboy jet to go to the National VD Conference”.

I Remember:

Harrisburg, 1976 – David Fraser, the CDC epidemiologist, looking like Sherlock Holmes. The new Asian-American EIS officer looking at a Pennsylvania map asking “How you get to Lilliamsport?” Human tissue on commercial planes to Atlanta – pre 9/11 security. The Governor in the Communicable Disease offices. Late night unexplained gaps in the social histories of the Legionnaires.

Three Mile Island. And an ongoing epidemiologic study of birth defects in Central Pennsylvania.  Amish without knowledge of TMI. And initially resistant to administering vaccines.

Swine Flu and more EIS officers. Pittsburgh, vaccine and Guillain Barre Syndrome.

Being called “Germ Busters” in Chester, PA, when the criterion for who got Bicillin in the syphilis outbreak investigation was simple – if you stepped into the Health Department van you were eligible.

My Public Health Advisor interviews on college campuses – and the sense of pride that still accompanies seeing a familiar name in an award ceremony. Or a promotion list.

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