On becoming a public health zombie

Mark Twain, my favorite writer, in Life on the Mississippi, wrote of the transformation that occurred when he,  the majestic pilot of the paddleboat, no longer saw the magic and wonderment in the beautiful world outside the pilot’s cabin:

The Mark Twain riverboat in Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo.

But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them … . No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

And it is with these words, etched in my head, that I began to realize that I had become a zombie. To be precise, I had become a fully credentialed (MPH) public health zombie.

When I attend big festival type events, I no longer experience pure fun and enjoy the carnival atmosphere in a pure form. I look at how healthy or, rather, how unhealthy the food sold is. Is it loaded with transfat and sodium? Is it industrially raised meat with potential risks of carrying e-coli?

Fairgoers at the 2009 Alaska State Fair in Palmer, Ak., load up on deep fried everything.

Instead of people watching for pleasure, I will study the crowd through a public health lens. And are those attending a celebration, like Seattle’s annual Fremont Fair, smoking and drinking excessively? (And they were at the Fremont Fair in June this year – I guessed nearly one in five attendees smoked, and I counted at least four outdoor beer gardens, with people imbibing booze as early as noon on a summer day.)

Did people drive to this event, or did they use a healthy form of active transportation like biking, walking, or perhaps a bus?

Bikes aplenty were found at the Fremont Fair on June 16, 2012, in Seattle.

And what about that “electric” cigarette stand run by “Vapor Pro”– a definite concern of public health officials trying to battle the peddlers of nicotine to young and old people alike.

Electric smokes were being sold at the Fremont Fair on June 16, 2012 — should they be allowed?

I also recently visited a middle school in Snohomish County, and was looking at the school entirely as an environment where public health interventions were or were not working. Were kids walking and biking to school? No, they had to bus. The school was located off a busy highway, and there were no sidewalks anywhere near the school. I could go on and on and on. The visit actually was driving me nuts because of all the built environment issues I was seeing that was preventing the kids from being more active than they could be.

For its part, the CDC has, to my delight, decided to poke fun at its earnest seriousness protecting the public’s health by launching a “zombie preparedness” campaign to prepare for a “zombie apocalypse.” The was a surprisingly successful tongue-in-cheek awareness campaign on how to prepare for disasters. It received a lot of coverage. Was this a sudden dash of entrepreneurial social media savvy by the organization dedicated to protecting the health of the nation that tens of millions of Americans know little or next to nothing about?

As much as I hate seeing people eat incredibly unhealthy food, and smoke cigarettes in any form, and get drunk on beers in the midday sun, and drive their cars everywhere, I wish I could now just turn off my own “public health zombie.”  Now I often ponder if I have succumbed to Twain’s curse of the riverboat pilot, contemplating what I have gained against what I have lost by learning this trade.  The good news is, I have my next Halloween costume already planned: a zombie public health inspector.

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