In 1999, Dr. Glennah Trochet had a lot on her plate as the new public health officer for Sacramento County - getting through to the public about infant mortality and communicable diseases, dealing with an outbreak of tuberculosis among the homeless and addressing budgetary woes that never seemed to heal.
That same year, she first heard about a case of West Nile virus on the East Coast. It wasn't long before she realized her office would someday be confronting the potentially deadly disease on her home turf.
"We knew it would eventually get here," said Trochet, 53. "You could just see it marching across the country."
In recent days, as the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District embarked on a sweeping and controversial aerial spraying program to kill mosquitoes to stop the spread of the virus, Trochet, as the county's public health officer, has been at the center of the storm.
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Trochet, who consulted with the mosquito control district, supports its decision, and she has fielded questions and concerns in public forums, repeatedly stating that spraying pesticides is the right choice at the right time.
As the spraying - and the uproar - continues, the public is getting to know a woman colleagues say is earnestly committed and brings a wealth of credentials to her work.
In her own way, her zeal mirrors the commitment her late parents brought to their job. For 50 years they were Presbyterian missionaries who met in Africa and spent two decades in Bogotá, Colombia, where she was raised.
Trochet, who earns $172,265 a year and oversees a $37.8 million budget, is soft-spoken but firm, modest but passionate to her core. Those who know her say she is the kind of woman who might go unnoticed when she enters a room but who leaves her mark by the time she departs.
With the upsurge in cases of infected birds, livestock and people, her workdays have been an exhausting whirlwind, beginning at 6:30 a.m. and often running to midnight, far longer than her normal 60-hour workweek.
For the woman who plays the lead role in talking to the community about health and well-being, this often means eating on the run or skipping meals altogether, getting by on too little sleep and waging a losing battle to balance her commitment as a mother with her role as a public servant.
"She has done very well and has remained calm through this," said Olivia Kasirye, county communicable disease controller.
The long days underscore the challenge Trochet's office is facing - getting the word out that spraying is safe, that there is no need to panic. Her measured words and careful reasoning get her only so far in a state with a lingering memory of the Medfly spraying efforts a generation ago.
Emotions run high
The opposition to aerial spraying has been intense, and Trochet has had her share of criticism.
Samantha McCarthy, a Davis lawyer involved in a failed court action to halt the spraying, disputes Trochet's position that the ingredients in the spray are among the least toxic pesticides and are being used in relatively small amounts.
"She obviously doesn't understand basic chemistry," McCarthy said. "She has no concept of what she is dealing with and she doesn't understand why people have concerns about this because of her own myopic viewpoint."
McCarthy, who is active with the group Stop West Nile Spraying Now, said: "We have a right to make these choices for our family and not to be assaulted from the air or the ground."
In an earlier interview, Trochet said she's been "surprised at the amount of opposition to aerial spraying and I've been surprised at the opinions expressed without evidence to support them."
Although the aerial spraying seemed to surprise the public, Trochet said she and other officials, including Dave Brown of mosquito vector control, have been talking about the strategy publicly for two years.
Once the West Nile cases began to mount this summer, Brown told Trochet they had to proceed with aerial spraying to stave off an epidemic.
In late July, county officials reported the first two cases of residents infected with West Nile virus. When the aerial spraying was announced Aug. 4, the count had risen to 21. As of Friday, there were 58 county residents reported with the disease.
"For us it was, 'Now it's time to implement the plan we've been talking about all these years.' I thought, 'This is a no-brainer,' " said Trochet, "given the pesticide that was picked, given the doses that they're going to expose all of us to, and given the potential for human disability and death that we have in this county."
Trochet, who said she doesn't use pesticides in her garden at home, added that she doesn't have a problem with such chemical applications if used judiciously. The rancorous opposition to pesticides she has confronted in public clearly frustrates her.
"The citizens of this county deserve an explanation of how we came to this decision," she said. "I think that has been said very clearly. What I have noticed in Sacramento is there is a group of people whose concern about pesticides is out of proportion from what I know about pesticides.
"I don't think they understand that in the United States every year there are 1,000 pounds of pesticide that every one of us is exposed to regardless of whether we live organically or not."
A gifted student
Shy as a child growing up in Colombia, where Spanish was her first language, Trochet was a gifted student. She was college educated in the United States, eventually earning an Ivy League medical degree in 1976 at the University of Pennsylvania. After residency in Houston, Trochet turned down lucrative offers to go into private practice, opting to tend to the poor on a South Dakota Indian reservation.
When she arrived in Sacramento in 1981, she and her husband, John, joined a private practice. In 1984, after the birth of their first daughter, Renee, the couple decided to share a single physician's slot in the medical practice so they could devote more time to parenting.
The experiment didn't last. John Trochet eventually left medicine to pursue a doctorate in zoology. These days, he is a highly regarded naturalist and bird expert.
Glennah Trochet left private practice and ended up treating homeless people. She rose through the ranks in the county health department, eventually becoming the chief public health officer in 1999.
Daughter Renee Trochet is now a senior at Stanford University, studying symbolic systems - a cutting-edge program geared toward the field of artificial intelligence. The couple's other daughter, Holly, 17, is a senior at Mira Loma High School in the international baccalaureate program.
Asked about the struggle to find balance in her life, Trochet said, "Any working woman you talk to who is also a mother will tell you it's a no-win situation. It doesn't matter how much time you give to your family, you feel guilty about your work; if you give time to your work, you feel guilty about your family. My husband and I see our children as our top priority and we're very proud of both of them."
Educating the public
One of her key roles in the effort against West Nile is public education - speaking before as many groups and forums as she can. What the audiences may not realize is that being in the spotlight is never easy for her.
"It is nerve-racking," she said. "I have spoken in public hundreds of times since 1999. I still get nervous every time. They invite me to dinners where I am the speaker and I can't eat until after I've spoken, I'm so nervous."
Betty Turner, policy consultant for the American Lung Association of Sacramento-Emigrant Trails, said, "Glennah doesn't speak without there being good reason. But when she speaks, everybody takes notice of what she has to say."
"She's quite a remarkable leader," said Marge Ginsburg, executive director of of the nonprofit Sacramento Healthcare Decisions, where Trochet is president of the board of directors. "She has a very clear vision and personal values about what is important."
Though the opposition to spraying frustrates Trochet at times, she knows it is part of her job - being out front and addressing all the concerns.
"Quite frankly, I can understand why people wouldn't trust government," she said. "I lived through the experience of Vietnam and I remember the federal government lied to the American people about a lot of incidents that happened during that war.
"All I can say is, in America we are very lucky there are so many people in public service because it is really a vocation for them. I consider myself one of them."
About the writer:
- The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson can be reached at (916) 321-1099 or firstname.lastname@example.org.