Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series on my “final thoughts” as I leave the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and move on to bigger, hopefully better things. Part one is HERE. Part three will be HERE starting August 16, 2013, at 8am ET, which is my last day at DHMH.
The Epi Gate Affair
Twitter was fully mature in the summer of 2011. That summer, contrary to my best judgment, I got into a flame war with some anti-vaccine guy from Florida. He had been offending and mocking some of my colleagues and friends on Twitter, and I decided to do some research on him. I found out that, contrary to his claims, he wasn’t all he said he was. I wrote up a blog post about how much of a “douchebag” he was. Well, that ended badly.
The guy had an allergic reaction to my blog post, so he decided to look up my work email and then email me and everyone else he could at DHMH. He emailed all the way up the chain to the Secretary of Health. He threatened legal action against me and the department for, allegedly, interfering with his business and defaming his character. The bosses got together and talked to me about it. They wanted to know why I was being mean to him. I explained what happened as best as I could, but they, understandably, were weary of the things I was writing and expressing and posting online. I was told that my presence on line reflected back on the health department, and, basically, I had to choose between being online publicly and keeping my job.
When I posted on Twitter and then on “The Epi Times” that I had chosen my job, there were plenty of people who came out to support me. I got a lot of emails and Twitter messages and comments on my blog about the situation. 99.999% of them were positive. The guy that caused all the trouble came out and attacked me even further, and he even managed to threaten others with legal action for supporting me. He was his own worst enemy, however. There were times when he made no sense. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, “Epi Gate,” as the situation was named, had taught us all about blogging and speaking out online against the anti-vaccine forces. They will strike back, and they will do so with a vengeance. (Warning: The link to Orac’s “The Consequences…” contains some violent imagery in the comments section as the man who came after my job shows up in the comments and posts some very violent material in an attempt to show that he’s “a saint” compared to the evils of mankind.)
The Crosby Accusations
One day, out of the blue, I got asked to a meeting with the bosses again. I jokingly asked what I did that time, and they said that I did nothing. They had with them an email from a young man named Jake who decided to take the approach of the guy from the “Epi Gate” situation and email everyone in the department. His email was not addressed to me, however. He wrote to everyone else in my office that I had a conflict of interest in doing epidemiology because I also advocated for the flu vaccine to be used. He then accused me of picking on him for being an anti-vaccine activist, and a very vocal (i.e. “rabid”) one at that. And he rounded it all off with accusing me of threatening him a few months earlier in a blog post where I mocked him for wanting to be an epidemiologist though he denied all the science behind it.
His accusations didn’t really hurt my standing at DHMH. In fact, the bosses had a chuckle at the convoluted way in which he presented my “conflict of interest” and called for my immediate dismissal. But his email and the “Epi Gate” situation did something. Things were not the same, and I could feel it. Where before my opinion on stuff was asked and I was invited to assist in investigations, I was now left out of meetings and not really asked to participate in anything. Where before I had presented several posters on epidemiologic studies, I didn’t present a single thing since then.
Hopkins, Can I Join You?
It was at that time, late 2011, that I decided it was time for me to move on. On the one hand, I loved the work at DHMH. On the other hand, the job wasn’t fun anymore. So I decided to apply for a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and North Carolina University. The NCU program was mostly online with a few campus visit now and then. That would have allowed me to keep the job and not mind not enjoying it anymore. Like with the lab before it, it would turn into just a job and nothing more. The University of Maryland program was in Baltimore, close enough that I could still commune and maybe keep the job as well. And the Hopkins program was the best of its kind in the world, a long shot for me given my 2.42 undergraduate GPA, my 3.96 graduate GPA, and my lack of any kind of published papers/articles/research.
UNC and Maryland refused to even interview me. Hopkins did interview me, and the interview went great, but I was not admitted in 2012. In fact, the day I got the notice that I was not admitted, I had to drive to Pittsburgh for an emergency in my wife’s family. It was a rough day, to say the least. But I got through it and moved on.
One good thing that came from applying to Hopkins was that I got to meet Dr. Carlos Castillo Salgado. If you look him up, you can see that he is quite the eminence in the world of public health. His resume is astounding, and, best of all, he’s from Mexico, like me. We talked (in Spanish, which is always nice) a lot about me working with him and Hopkins on epidemiological projects. That, and he invited me to apply again. He told me that one thing that counted against me was that the state epidemiologist did not write a letter of recommendation for me. I explained to him that the state epidemiologist didn’t have time. At least, I hope he didn’t have time. It seemed to me more like he didn’t want to recommend someone who’d caused him all those headaches because of my online activity.
Oh, Yeah, I Got Married!
I met the woman who would become my wife in the summer of 2006. Back then, I was kind of aimless. I was almost done with my master of public health at George Washington University, but I didn’t really feel like getting it done. I felt that nothing would change, and I was perfectly happy making a lot of money at the lab. But she saw in me that I was just lying to myself. She saw how miserable I was at the lab. One day late that summer, we sat at a playground and talked about my ambitions. She convinced me to get on and finish the degree.
I presented my culminating project on February 14, 2007, having driven all the way to Washington from Waynesboro, PA, in the middle of a blizzard.
Once I got the job at DHMH, “the girl” helped me settle into a habit of getting up early, working all day, and getting home late yet having enough time to go for a jog and hang out at her apartment. In 2008, I moved in with her brother into an apartment right outside of Baltimore. Late that year, I proposed to her. By May 2010, we were married. She really has been my rock though this adventure of becoming, then being, and epidemiologist. Even with all the anti-vaccine nonsense, she’s remained my steady supporter.
Plenty of people from the office came to our wedding.
Try and Try and Try Again
In the fall of 2012, at the direction of Dr. Castillo, I applied again to Hopkins. The interview wouldn’t happen until late winter of 2013. In the meantime, for the application, I made it a point to tell the admissions committee who I really was. I told them all about “Epi Gate,” the “Crosby Complaints,” and all other shenanigans going on online about me. For that, I had the help of Dr. Judy Stone, a wonderful and smart physician who I met through my online dealings into the science-antiscience debates. She and her husband and son all suggested that I be honest with the admission committee so that they wouldn’t be surprised by things that would come up if they decided to Google my name.
I submitted the application, along with letters of recommendation from non-DHMH sources, and I hoped for the best. (Alright, one was a DHMH source, but he doesn’t work in the office where I work. He works in another office but has dealt with me at times of crisis when “preparedness” has been needed.)
Long story short, I got accepted into the Doctor of Public Health program at Hopkins and announced my departure from DHMH for August 16, 2013.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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