It was a long time ago, 1986 to be specific, I learned a life lesson. Here it is: no matter how carefully a project is planned, something will go wrong.
It was a cold December morning, at 9:00 a.m. as we met on the tenth floor of the old courthouse. I, Mort, the Health Department attorney with a team of expert environmental specialists, Wally Livingstone, Dick Strait and Mike Rybolowik, were preparing for our big day in court. We were fighting a slum-lord by seeking an injunction to have him either repair and clean up his building or have it shut down. Mr. Slum-Lord owned a forty-unit apartment complex in downtown Miami. He was a skinny hallow-faced sixty year old and looked like he didn’t care how his tenants lived as long as he got his rent money. Mr. Slum-Lord’s poverty-stricken tenants were living in a building with piles of rubbish throughout the complex, which of course lead to a mouse problem.
Wally, the head of the Environmental Health Unit, was prepared to testify that mice can be harmful pests spreading diseases through their parasites and feces. Wally would testify that mice carry and cause the following diseases: rickettsial pox, rat bite fever, food poisoning (namely salmonellosis which is spread to people when food is contaminated by saliva, urine or feces from the mouse). Mice can spread parasites to people such as trichinosis and tapeworm. We not only had photographs taken by Mike Rybolowik of the mouse infestation, but also Dick Strait had caught a live mouse, caged it, and named it Stuart Little. Mort excitedly said, “This would be the best demonstrative evidence to convince the judge to rule in our favor.” And after introducing Stuart Little into evidence, the Clerk would have an interesting time keeping Stuart alive.
Mort knew that his witnesses were well prepared for the 9:30 a.m. hearing. While we waited in the Judge’s chambers for the trial to commence, we admired Stuart Little in his make-shift home. Little did we know that Stuart was laying his own plans.
The Health Department hadn’t bought a professionally-made hamster or gerbil cage or purchased a small aquarium with a mesh top. But, instead, we made our own sturdy-looking wire-mesh cage with removable top. We were all admiring our cute little three-inch common house mouse, when the cage fell out of Wally’s hands; the lid flipped open and Stuart Little made a mad dash for freedom.
We scurried around the Judge’s chambers trying to look inconspicuous while attempting to find and catch Stuart. Sadly to say for us, Stuart had escaped. Mort then whispered to Wally, Dick and Mike to get the mouse cage out of the courthouse and not mention what happened that fateful morning.
We won the case. Mr. Slum-lord fixed up the apartment complex and eliminated the mouse problem.
As Mort enters the old courthouse twenty-one years later, he wonders if any Stuart Little’s relatives are still living on the tenth floor. He smiles and remembers the life lesson: the best laid plans of men, (not always mice), often go awry.
” The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/gang aft a-gley”
To a Mouse by Robert Burns
The Best-Laid Plans
It was spring 2003 and SARS2 was quickly making its journey around the globe. The world watched as this scary disease killed 744 people. With over eight thousand people sick, no one knew which country would be affected next. Americans grew more frightened when our northern Canadian neighbors began dying.
All told, forty-three Canadians died of SARS. Toronto was quarantining its citizenry. The Miami-Dade County Health Department’s Epidemiology staff, under the august direction of Chief Physician Fermin Leguen, was anxiously awaiting the first case of SARS to hit America.
Was SARS destined to be our modern-day plague?
Our stomachs dropped as we received notice from the Centers for Disease Control that Miami had a viable SARS threat. An Orthodox Rabbi, working as a jeweler, had recently returned from a business trip to: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Province of Ontario, Canada. These nations had the highest rate of SARS cases in the world. The Rabbi was now ill with many SARS symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, and gastrointestinal problems. He lived alone at his home on Miami Beach. His social life revolved mainly around his religion and daily trips to the Synagogue.
His humble temple was located four short blocks from his home. Despite his ailments, the Rabbi continued his daily devotional journey to pray with approximately twenty fellow congregants.
Dr. Leguen warned the clergyman that his daily journey to the Temple could spread this deadly disease to the whole community and most affect the Synagogue members. The Rabbi did not heed the good doctor’s warning.
Michael Greif, a Tallahassee Health Department Attorney with an expertise in SARS, requested that Mort Laitner’s and Judy Elfont, the local health lawyers intercede to convince the Rabbi to stay at home. Mort and Judy called the Rabbi and explained about the transmission of SARS and the high mortality rate. The Rabbi had done a lot of reading about SARS during his lengthy trip around the world, and politely requested that he speak with another medical doctor about his condition. The Rabbi, in classic Talmudic style, questioned why he was getting medical advice from attorneys. Mort realized he would have to bring in the state’s Division Director for Disease Control, Dr. Landis Crockett.
Dr. Crockett had the credentials that would impress the religious leader. He had a medical degree from an Ivy League school and a Masters in Public Health from John Hopkins. Although Mort hoped the Rabbi would listen to Dr. Crockett, he wanted a back-up plan.
An avid history buff, Mort thought about former president Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote which came from a West African proverb,
“Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.” 3
Mort knew in order to protect the community he would need to have more than just a soft speech from a highly qualified doctor. He would need to carry a big stick as well. It is not without great thought that the Health Department undertakes measures to quarantine individuals against their will. However, in a case such as this, the involuntary
Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.
2 SARS is the acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
3 Big Stick Diplomacy or Big Stick Policy was the slogan describing U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The United States, he claimed, had the right not only to oppose European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, but also to intervene itself in the domestic affairs of its neighbors if they proved unable to maintain order and national sovereignty on their own. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_stick_diplomacy.
quarantine stick was the only one that would wield enough strength to keep the Rabbi from infecting the city with SARS.
Mort didn’t want to go as far as to meet the Rabbi in person. However, he gathered his N-95 masks, his anti-bacterial hand gel and a quarantine order. His plan, should the doctor’s conversation with the Rabbi fail, was to visit the Rabbi’s home with the police.
Dr. Crockett, Michael, Judy and Mort managed to get the Rabbi on the phone. The doctor did an admiral job of explaining the risk of exposure to the community, the epidemiology of the disease and how extremely important it was for the Rabbi to stay and to pray at home until his period of communicability was over.