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'Public Oddities' make audience squirm

Strand Theatre Manager David Finkel, right, introduces Grover Museumdirector Alex Krach, far left, and business manager of the Shelby County Health Department Robert Lewis prior to their presentation, “Public Health Oddities,” Wednesday evening at the Strand Theatre.

By HANNAH GUNNELL - hgunnell@shelbynews.com

Two chairs and a table rest stage right, away from the screen featuring a skeleton riding a giant fly. The skeleton is carrying a flag that reads “DISEASE” in all capital letters.

This setup at the Strand Theatre was the cleanest part of Public Health Oddities, the sixth presentation in the Community Treasures series put on by the Grover Museum. 

The rest of the presentation made the audience squirm with disgust. 

Robert Lewis, business manager for the Shelby County Health Department, began the presentation on diseases in Shelby County through a historical perspective by introducing himself.

“For those of you don’t know me, I’m a pisces and I like long walks in the park,” he joked. 

But public health is no laughing matter to Lewis, who began his career at the health department in 1986. His hour-long presentation covered microbes, and how they end up in food, water and air. 

Microbes are dangerous threatening germs that can lead to disease outbreaks, Lewis said, and the first physicians didn’t know anything about them.

“They were quacks,” Lewis said. 

Because of this lack of knowledge, disease was common in urban areas, often leading to large outbreaks and death. 

For example, there was an outbreak of diphtheria at the Gordon Children’s Home in the 1920s. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that causes a thick covering of the back of the throat. Lewis said it was responsible for the death of many orphans. 

Lewis went on to discuss how improper food care at eating establishments, failure to clean homes, bird feces, and factory waste can lead to the spread of microbes and microbacteria, which results in illnesses. 

But it wasn’t his words that made his audience shift uncomfortably, though. It was the graphic photos he took while out on inspections that he showed on-screen along with his presentation. 

“I had so many, I didn’t know which way to go, so I just wanted to touch base a little bit about housing, a little bit about food and a little bit about the environment,” he said. 

Lewis even included a photo of a deceased person in a residential home. In the photo, one can see a swollen belly of a man behind lots of trash. Lewis said that when one dies, the bacteria in the stomach can build up until the belly of the corpse “pops.” Lewis said the body had been there for at least a few days when they discovered it. 

He said he included that photo to show the decrease in face-to-face conversation.

“We used to have doctors – and postmen – that followed you around all our lives,” he said. “We’ve become so impersonal that we don’t even know our neighbors are dead.” 

“I’m trying to educate,” Lewis said. “People are going backwards on these diseases when we should keep them preventable. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, from people who aren’t in the medical field or science. Our job at the health department is to preserve and protect and enhance the environment so future generations will have clean soil, water, food [and] air.” 

Despite some of the grotesqueness that he shared, Lewis said he believes Shelby County has faired well in terms of cleanliness. The county has a 95 percent immunization rate.

“Our county is a pretty clean community,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to live here. Yes, in the past we had some factories that polluted and things, but that was the beast of the nature. They didn’t know better.”

Claudia Neu, who has attended all six Community Treasures presentations so far, said she found “Public Oddities” entertaining.

“It kept your interest,” she said. “I didn’t expect this. You don’t think about these things, and I think it was a surprise. A lot of other things you knew about – you knew about the railroads, you knew about the flood, but you don’t think about this.”

Lewis’ presentation surprised Grover Museum director Alex Krach.

“That took me for a ride I wasn’t ready for,” he said. 

The floor was then opened up for questions, where audience members (remembering the Shelbyville High School histoplasmosis outbreak of 2001) asked about the Canada Geese and how their presence affects the school system. 

Lewis said that wherever there is fecal matter, there is disease. He then gave a tip on how to keep geese away, such as placing cardboard dog cutouts on lawns.

“Tell the mayor to write a letter to Canada to have them come get their damn geese,” he joked. 

The Community Treasures series is a monthly presentation that was born out of necessity to preserve community stories that would be lost with time, Krach said. The presentation was streamed on The Strand Theatre’s Facebook page.