Bruce Dixon Calm amid Health Department Fray

Article excerpt

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. …