Good Luck, Dr. Netherda

I sit on the Sonoma County Commission on AIDS with Dr. Mark Netherda, who most recently was the county’s Interim Health Officer, and before that the Deputy Health Officer. Mark is retiring from the county in November, going to Kaiser where he can get back to practicing medicine.

I’ve worked with Dr. Netherda at the county and on the commission for several years now. He was on the commission as the clinical director of the county’s HIV clinic when I first came on board.  I was over my head. I didn’t know the players and I didn’t know a quarter of the jargon. I did manage to figure out pretty quickly that “epi” was short for epidemic, but I hesitate to admit how many meetings went by before I figured out that MSM as a category meant “Men have Sex with Men.” (It took seeing someone point to IDU and saying out loud, “IV Drug Users” for me to figure it out.) I knew Dr. Netherda worked for the county doing something important and I knew he was a doctor, so he kind of intimidated me.

One night he told this story. I can’t remember the exact context, but Mark started speaking about a clinic patient who had died. She came to the clinic regularly for treatment for many things but not her AIDS. Mark had met with her several times, trying to get her on one of the newer medications, but she refused. She told him she had read a book about a woman who had prayed away AIDS, and that’s what she was doing. She was confident that prayer would cure her.

Mark had a lot to say about the book and its writer. The story of the book was this: the woman tested positive for AIDS. She went home, devastated, went through the dark night of the soul, and turned to her church. Her minister prayed with her and told her to continue to pray and put her life into God’s hands. She did, and tested again eight weeks later to find out –presto!—no AIDS.

“Not a single mention of the chance of a false positive in the book,” Mark said. “This woman is either a cynical scam artist or she is being exploited. But I hate – I just hate  — that our patient died because of that kind of ignorance.”

Mark snapped into focus for me with that story. I began to understand how much he relied on Western medicine, how passionate he was about it, and how protective he was of patients under his care. The anger was personal. If he could have met the writer of the book right then, he would have said those words to her… and probably more.

I think prayer is wonderful, and I would guess Mark does too, but I think he might say to use it along with your medicine, not instead of it. I also have friends who see nothing to respect in Western medicine and think it destroys quality of life by taking a scorched earth approach to disease. I’m not debating that. It was Mark’s emotion that held my attention. That emotion, that passion hasn’t wavered in the eight years since.

Mark spent two years in the African nation of Namibia, fighting AIDS. When he came back he moved into the job of Deputy Health Officer, and then when the Health Officer retired Mark basically covered three jobs.

Another Commissioner asked him if there were any other reason he was leaving, other than the yearning to practice medicine again. Mark shrugged, “Maybe if the last four years had been different…” he said.

“Different how?”

Mark said, “Well, two epidemics, laying off a hundred fifty employees in the department and covering three jobs, I guess.”

“Two epidemics?” The other commissioner was baffled.

“H1N1 and pertussis,” Mark said.

“Really? H1N1? I don’t remember that being a very big deal.”

Of course you don’t; because it wasn’t. And it wasn’t because of what Mark and his staff did to make it be not a big deal. They located and acquired enough vaccine, they ran vaccination clinics throughout the county – clinics that were easy to locate, navigate and use. They also did a thorough education campaign. A curse of county employment is that usually, if you do your job exceptionally well, no one notices – because you’ve managed to avert a disaster.

Anyway, I for one will miss Mark at the Commission and at various other meetings in the county. I know, though, that he’s going back to the work he loves. And I can’t help but think that he won’t be able to stay away from the Commission all that long.

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