On the spot diagnosis of syphilis requires a “darkfield microscope.” As a new public health worker with the lofty title, “Venereal Disease Epidemiologist,” I had been trained to use the darkfield, and to identify the causative agent: the spirochete, Treponema Pallidum. Most physicians did not know how to use this fancy microscope, nor had they ever seen the spirochete that causes the disease.
My first job out of college, was with the U.S. Public Health Service as a V.D. Investigator – or in street lingo, I was a “clap cop.” The Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta supplied excellent training to local health department officials. I felt ready for whatever came my way.
One day I got a call from a local GP to come over right away with my microscope. He set me up in a back room, then disappeared to see his patient. He returned a few minutes later with a microscope slide and handed it to me, “Take a look.” I put the slide under the microscope… and sure enough, there wiggling around were live spirochetes. He said it came from an open genital sore. I had the doctor examine the slide. He looked up, “What do you think?” Silence hung in the air. I had been trained for this moment.
I said, “As a non-medical person, of course, I can not make a diagnosis. I will say, though, it is identical to specimens we saw in our training program at CDC. What is the patient’s history?” In hushed tones he said, “She is a sexually active teenager. Problem is, she is also the daughter of our mayor.” He had a worried look.
Packing up my microscope, I wondered how he would explain a treatment of two courses of penicillin which would knock it out right away. Of course, California law allows treatment of minors without parental consent in the case of VD. He, and she, probably had some explaining to do.
He thanked me for coming and shook my hand. As I reached for the door, I looked back to see him rolling his eyes. I never found out what happened next.