Ross Pennie is a Canadian author who gets up early every day to wrestle with fictional mysteries before setting off to the hospital where he specializes in real-life detective work as an infectious-diseases physician.
His first medical triller, Tainted, combines his two passions as Associate Medical Officer of Health Zol Szabo struggles to find our why a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob—commonly called mad cow disease—is suddenly showing up in far too many human brains.
What is an infectious disease specialist?
An infectious disease specialist is Sherlock Holmes with a medical degree.
We use our powers of observation, backed up with specialized insider knowledge, to figure out what’s making patients ill. We rarely have our own regular patients, but consult on patients whose signs and symptoms have stumped other doctors.
Usually the patient turns out to have a straightforward infection in an unusual spot, such as a pocket of pus in the liver or a clump of germs clinging to a heart valve. Or patients might have something exotic picked up on their travels, such as malaria, intestinal worms, or Ebola. Often, they have something that mimics an infection but no germs are involved: gouty inflammation of a joint, a broken foot, a cancer burrowing from the nose into the brain.
The exciting part about being an infectious disease physician is the diversity of the patients’ problems. We deal with every part of the body and people of all ages. And although we have a sophisticated armamentarium of diagnostic tests at our fingertips, I usually figure out what’s wrong with the patient just be listening to their story.
What's the scariest thing you know about infectious diseases?
When I started my medical career more than thirty years ago, doctors could treat most bacterial infections with a limited variety of simple antibiotics. In remote Papua New Guinea, where I spent two years in the 1970s, life-threatening infections were my number-one preoccupation; I could treat practically everything, cheaply and effectively, with the two antibiotics we had in the cupboard.
Nowadays, our pharmacies are stuffed with all sorts of expensive, high-tech antibiotics that don’t work. The bacteria have outsmarted us; many have morphed into superbugs that resist every antibiotic known to modern medicine. If your child gets pneumonia or a bone infection or meningitis with one of these superbugs, even the finest infectious-disease specialist on the planet has nothing to offer except a shoulder to cry on. In a world where we take medical miracles such as heart transplants for granted, watching a child die of uncontrolled infection after a scrape on the knee truly is scary.
You've written on your blog about carving your writing time out of the early morning. How do you make that mental transition from writer-in-your-head to doctor-in-your-head each morning?
My drive from home to work takes thirty minutes on a freeway that’s blessed with little traffic. After writing for two hours at home in my study, I put the car in cruise control, tune to CBC Radio Two, and listen to the commercial-free, roots-rock they play at that time. It clears my head and reverts me to the doctor who writes from the writer who doctors.
How does the writer-who-doctors and doctor-who-writes influence one another? Is there a synergy there where one feeds the other? Are there conflicts where doing one makes doing the other harder?
Yes, there is a wonderful synergy between the doctor and the writer within me. Doctors and writers are keen observers, driven to record and understand whatever confronts them. Doctors transform their observations – patients’ stories, physical signs, laboratory tests – into clinical diagnoses. Writers analyze their observations – human foibles, current events, scientific wonders – and create interpretations that help make sense of a confusing world. The doctor’s client is the patient, the writer’s is the reader.
Clarity is the watchword of the skilled physician and the accomplished writer. A crystal-clear description of the minute details of a patient’s illness, when read out loud, often reveals the diagnosis before the laboratory tests are ordered. Likewise, when a writer chooses precisely the right words to convey images, actions, emotions, and abstractions, the resultant connection with the reader creates an epiphany, a luminous understanding that keeps the pages turning.
In short, I believe that my doctor’s keen eye and my writer’s precise descriptions have helped improve my skills at both endeavors.
Tell me about your character Dr. Zol Szabo and the world in which he lives.
The backyard of Zol Szabo’s renovated homestead ends at the sheer drop of the Niagara Escarpment. For Zol, balancing his personal and professional worlds is as tricky as avoiding that steep precipice at the bottom of his garden. He’s been a single father ever since his wife ran away six years ago to an ashram in India, which means much of his world revolves around eight-year Max.
Zol was lured to Public Health by the promise of family-friendly office hours, but in Hamilton, Ontario, crime and skulduggery cause more death and sickness than unhealthy habits like tobacco and fast food. Between Max and the criminals, Zol has little time for hobbies, but as a former professional chef, he can whip up a fine meal from whatever happens to be in his refrigerator and serve it with a delicious wine purchased at a bargain price. He dates from time to time, and at the moment he’s falling for a gorgeous private investigator but is terrified she could be another Hare Krishna in disguise.
For more on Ross and his books visit his web site.