Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Time to count the pollen

In the Laboratory, by Henry Alexander (Met)
     "Allergies are bad this year," said a friend who stopped by Sunday for a social distance walk, trying to set us at ease at his sneeze, so we wouldn't worry that microscopic death was vigorously swimming in our direction through the six feet of air between us.
    The next day, Facebook reminded me that, nine years earlier, my status was "Neil Steinberg is showered, dressed and brewing the coffee at 3:45 a.m., heading over to watch them take the midwest pollen readings. The things that excite me..."
     There are several directions I could go with this. It reminds us of the head work and devotion to science that is so casually slurred by lazy idiots when the results go contrary to their stream of inner psychobabble. It also hints at the countless fascinating stories ignored in the general disaster of the pandemic. We could note that Gottlieb Hospital was funded by nickels and dimes scraped together by David Gottlieb, who began his famous pinball machine design and manufacturing company in Chicago in 1927. Or that Dr. Leija is still going strong at 90, though I am told he retired last year.

     It's 5:25 a.m., time for Dr. Joseph G. Leija to count the pollen and mold that Chicago has been breathing for the last 24 hours.
     He takes a white plastic-foam container holding glass microscope slides, selects one etched with tomorrow's date and greased to make it sticky. The allergist tucks the slide in a small plastic case and stands up.
     "I have to phone the guard," says Dr. Leija, who left his home in Oak Brook about 4:40 a.m. He calls security at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and says the door to the roof will be opening—nothing to worry about, it's just him, as it has been every weekday morning for the last 20 years, in his capacity as head of the National Allergy Bureau's Melrose Park station, the only location monitoring airborne allergens in the state of Illinois, the only one between St. Louis and Madison.
     It's a little ironic that Dr. Leija ended up an allergist. Originally, he was a general practitioner who suspected that allergies were "psychosomatic," he says, twisting a finger at his temple. No more.
     Now, at 81, he still sees patients, but is not paid for his daily rooftop visit.
     "I'm doing this for fun," he says, his light accent hinting at Mexico. "My wife thinks I'm stupid. But people really need this."
     He walks through the empty hospital corridors, takes the elevator to the sixth floor, unlocks a security door, climbs stairs and steps out onto the hospital roof. Looking toward the city, the pre-dawn sky is brownish pink. The air is cool and pleasant. In the fall, when it's dark, he wears a miner's head lamp.
     On the southeast corner of the roof is a $5,000 device called a Burkard Volumetric Spore Trap, developed during World War II by the British, worried about biological attacks and seeking a way to detect any toxins that might puff across the English Channel.
     In the base of the trap is a fan, drawing air at 10 liters a minute—the rate a person breathes—and a mechanism that slowly moves the slide past an intake, plus a vane-like tail to make sure it faces into the wind so gusts don't rip the device off the roof.
     Dr. Leija opens the trap, removes yesterday's slide, tucks it in the little case and puts the fresh slide in its place. Then he takes a key and winds the mechanism that slowly moves a section of the slide past the intake.
     "We wind the clock," he says.
     He crunches across the rooftop stones, to the door and goes downstairs to his office.
     Why do this so early? Perhaps to minimize soot from daytime traffic emissions? No.
     "Because of the television cameras," he says. "They want it early in the morning, by 7 o'clock. Advertising the hospital."
     "They" refers to Tracy Butler, a meteorologist at Channel 7, who gives the pollen count twice a morning, at 7:30 and after 11.
     "It's so nice to have somebody like Dr. Leija, who cares so much about the accuracy of this count," Butler said later. "The man is on the roof no matter the weather, getting this data for our viewers, and he does it voluntarily. It says a lot about his mission."
     Going on the roof isn't the half of it. Back in his office, Dr. Leija stains the slide with red glycerin, then puts it under a microscope. First the pollen, at 400x magnification. Pollen is— to be blunt—a male plant's sperm. He doesn't just count the spores.
     "You have to identify them," he says. Some pollen are round, or blunted triangles, some have "Mickey Mouse ears." Acer, betulace, fraxinus, populus—sugar maple, birch, ash, cottonwood—for a count of 134.
     "I'm surprised there's so much pollen, with the rain," he says. "Cottonwood is flowering right now. A few weeks back it was elm." When the wind blows from the south, Dr. Leija finds juniper pollen from Texas.
     "For me, it's fascinating," he says.
     Then to 1,000x magnification, for the molds. Ascospores, cladosporium, rusts, smuts, chaetomium. They look like coffee beans under the microscope.
     "There are so many molds," he says.
     The counting takes nearly an hour. "You can get lost in the microscope," says Karen Cantalupo, a nurse who helps Dr. Leija with the count. "Either you like it or you don't."
     The stats are entered online; not the actual numbers, to prevent drug companies from swiping the data, but vague terms. Today's pollen and mold levels are "high." Cantalupo calls Channel 7 and Gottlieb PR, which also disseminates the information. "Marketing, marketing, marketing," says Dr. Leija.
     With allergies, both airborne and food, skyrocketing, and in an era of big medicine and big money, the pollen count is still monitored by a nationwide chain of volunteers.
     "Allergists are doing this count for nothing," says Dr. Estelle Levetin, a professor of biology at the University of Tulsa and chair of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology's Aerobiology Committee, which oversees the network. "But it's also giving them information that's going to help them with their patients. I think they all should be doing this."
          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 4, 2011 Wednesday


  1. Fascinating information — finding pollen from Texas on a rooftop in Melrose Park. Imagine that! Glad there are folks like Dr. Leija who provides pollen and mold counts for TV reporting. People with allergies appreciate knowing those counts. Thanks for covering the good doctor’s work and for sharing it on your blog.

  2. Is anyone else old enough to remember P.J. Hoff? He was the weather guy on Ch. 2 in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Drew all his own weather maps by hand, with a big ink pen that looked like a crayon. He had been an editorial cartoonist earlier in his life, in Minnesota. So he also drew cartoons next to the maps. The one I remember best was the Asian guy who counted the pollen with an abacus. Naturally, he was known as Little Ah Choo.

    Yeah, I know those were unenlightened and more racist times, but hey, I was just a kid...and I liked puns a lot (can you tell?). Little Ah Choo appeared on-screen every late summer and early fall for years, until P.J. finally got older and retired. I could still laugh because I didn't have any allergies yet. That happened later.

  3. This is a typically great example of Neal taking something that looks dull at first glance and making it fascinating. But one sentence left me scratching my head:

    The stats are entered online; not the actual numbers, to prevent drug companies from swiping the data, but vague terms.

    Drug companies swiping the data? Does Gottlieb sell them the exact numbers?


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