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Patricia Dillon, M.D., M.P.H., '86: One for all
Dr. Patricia Dillon is giving advice over the phone about what to do with 10 severed heads in a garbage bag. Ten raccoon heads, that is. The caller is a rabies control officer who's upset that the heads weren't delivered the way suspected rabies-infected materials are supposed be—in separate containers that can be shipped directly to the state lab for testing. The officer is worried about his staff having to handle the heads.
"Do you have face shields?" inquires Dillon, who is acting director of public health for New York's populous Suffolk County. "Go to Home Depot and get spackling buckets" to pack the heads in, she adds.
Moments later, she's phoning a state biologist, asking him to work with the rabies officer to safely get the heads to the state lab. Rabies has been spreading through the raccoon population in Suffolk and Nassau Counties on Long Island for about three years. Dillon helped to develop and run a program to vaccinate raccoons, using edible fishbait cubes containing a liquid rabies vaccine. Last fall, some 400,000 cubes were distributed via helicopter, as well as by hundreds of volunteers trained by a Cornell expert to "think like a raccoon," she says, so they'd know where to scatter the bait.
In her typical hands-on fashion, Dillon—who's also medical director of communicable diseases—pitched in and worked alongside the volunteers. "Of course Dr. Dillon was behind the scenes, getting funding from the legislators," too, says Dr. Sal Scarpitta, a county health department scientist. "She knows how to play the system and get what she wants [to] serve the public interest."
Playing the system is something Dillon is good at—whether it's securing funding for bioterrorism exercises; getting state and federal officials to respond quickly to emerging crises; or negotiating a creaky bureaucratic system to get the medications, supplies, and equipment her staff needs to do their jobs. "Her principled stances on publichealth issues, coupled with her tenacious attention to detail and follow- up, make her the model of what a public-health official should be," says her boss, Paul Sabatino, chief deputy county executive.
After handling the rabies calls, Dillon heads off to a meeting. She zips through a maze of cubicles, stopping to say hello to staff members along the way. Tireless
and upbeat, Dillon has a knack for infecting people with her can-do attitude.
Her staff shares her enthusiasm for doing whatever it takes to ensure the public's health and safety. At a meeting earlier that day, Dillon and the department's nurses met with representatives of a state immunization program eager to run flu vaccination clinics in minority communities. But many African-Americans are fearful of government medical programs because they recall the Tuskegee Project, an experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972 on black men with syphilis. Dillon and several of her nurses are quick to volunteer to run Sunday clinics at churches where the pastors can encourage congregants to get their shots.
"That's why I love Suffolk," says Sandra Spencer of the state immunization program. "It's my favorite health department." The department, made up of physicians, nurses, inspectors,
engineers, and other public-health specialists, is charged with assuring the health and well-being of Suffolk County's nearly 1.5 million residents. Dillon and her crew aim to prevent disease, monitor and control outbreaks, and prepare for emergencies such as pandemic flu.
For example, a force of 25 sanitarians oversees the food safety and restaurant inspection programs. "They walk in unannounced," says Dillon. "They immediately start taking temperatures [of the food]. They look for violations" in food handling and preparation.
And when, despite their best efforts, a food-borne illness does take hold, the department investigates it. In December, Dillon's office had to chase down the source of an E. coli outbreak. The first case was reported on a Friday afternoon. By that evening, there were five more confirmed cases from three separate labs. After exhaustively questioning the infected individuals, Dillon and her staff realized
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Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine magazine