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Bruce Dixon calm amid health department fray

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, March 10, 2012

When I met Dr. Bruce Dixon in 2000, he warned me about his many quirks. He always wore Hush Puppies, a necktie and cufflinks, even when cutting grass at his North Braddock home.

What Allegheny County's public health guru didn't warn me about was his well-tuned wit, his uncanny doctor's instinct and his forceful ability to dispel rumors and half-truths about health matters. So when the Allegheny County Board of Health ousted Dixon this week after 20 years as health chief, I couldn't help but think about the many times I called him for a bit of wisdom.

One of the first times was in 2002, when more than 1,000 brain surgery patients at UPMC Presbyterian learned that a patient died from an illness similar to mad cow disease. Dixon was almost indignant that anyone would think they caught mad cow disease.

"There's a higher chance of someone being struck by lightning this evening," Dixon told me. I knew right then I'd be dealing with one of the most practical, no-nonsense sources of my career.

When three deaths were linked in 2003 to a hepatitis outbreak at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Beaver County, I asked Dixon why health authorities there didn't warn potential victims about taking acetaminophen, a medication that can damage the liver.

Dixon flat out told me that Chi-Chi's executives were slow to release information and he would've preferred quicker action. Later in the conversation he said something that, though seemingly contradictory, was dead-on: "Sometimes if you alert the public too quickly, you get people panicky without any reason."

You have to give props to Dixon for using the word "panicky." It was the type of Dixonism that resonated with the public, which often is pounded with medical jargon impossible to understand. Dixon made sure he spoke like we do, like Pittsburghers: straightforward, never condescending.

The conventional wisdom about public health experts is that they gyrate on illnesses and instill fear. Dixon engaged in none of that, choosing instead to be reassuring and unruffled. He may not have pleased some critics, perhaps because he was not an alarmist.

During the national debate about trans fats, which enhance flavor but clog arteries, Dixon pointed out that many restaurants and hospitals were rushing to rid menus of the nasty fats and made it clear there was no need for laws to ban trans fats. "I don't think we should legislate people out of existence," he said.

Perhaps Dixon's most direct words came in April 2009 when the swine flu outbreak riveted the nation and the slightest cough convinced many they were infected with the virus. Dixon called a news conference and said people were overreacting. "We need to sit back, take a deep breath," he said. "This too shall pass. It's not the end of the world."

Dixon's departure is not the end of the world either. But his rational approach will be tough to replace. I will miss his accessibility, his punchy one-liners and his remarkable sense of calm. Our city seemed a lot less stressed with Dixon a phone call away.

I sure hope County Executive Rich Fitzgerald realizes he has big Hush Puppies to fill.

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