From the 1950s until the 1970s babies were routinely vaccinated against the often-fatal and highly contagious disease. Many of us can still see the scar left by the vaccine (on the upper arm near the shoulder—it looks sort of like a brown flower tattoo). But smallpox was eradicated from the face of the earth more than 30 years ago; the supply of virus was largely destroyed (small amounts were sent to specific, well-protected labs for research). The decision to destroy the vaccine supply came in the aftermath of the accidental exposure of medical photographer Janet Parker. Which brings us to this week’s House, M.D. episode “A Pox on Our House.”
Julie, a teenage girl, picks up a medicine bottle from 18th Century slave ship wreckage off Bermuda. The slave ship had been sunk because it was believed that the passengers were infected or exposed to the deadly virus. When the girl breaks out in a suspicious rash after cutting her hand with broken bottle, House (Hugh Laurie) thinks she may have smallpox. Despite Foreman’s (Omar Epps) protestations to the contrary, confirmatory tests do seem to indicate that she has it.
House sees something in Julie’s symptoms that don’t’ quite fit a smallpox diagnosis. But in the meantime, the hospital has been quarantined—because it might be smallpox, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) comes in to take over the investigation from House and the team, leaving them with little else to do but twiddle their thumbs and wait for results.
Minor rant: Okay, so there’s only one thing that bugged me about this episode. It makes complete sense to call in the CDC, but his complete dismissal of House doesn’t make sense given House’s expertise. House is not only as a diagnostician (he’s world famous enough for the CIA to have called him in on a consult in “Whatever it Takes,” which aired season four), he’s also board certified in infectious diseases (and nephrology). That’s quite a pedigree to have him shoved aside by the CDC guy like he’s some sort of provincial hospital doc. On the other hand, maybe the CDC honcho does know about House and just doesn’t like his way of doing things—or maybe he’s just arrogant. It just bothered me a bit – and it bothered me that House didn’t really push it. End of rant, and now returning you to your regularly scheduled House commentary.
Foreman, Chase (Jesse Spencer) and Taub (Peter Jacobson) are content to read the paper and wait out the CDC. But the earnest and eager newbie Masters (Amber Tamblyn) wants to continue the differential. “What looks like smallpox, but isn’t?” is a question we might expect House to ask.
But House isn’t exactly biding his time by doing the New York Times crossword; he’s doing research. The CDC may hold the keys to the quarantine room, but the resourceful House has located the captain’s log from the sunken ship. But it’s in Dutch. Now, I would guess that House has at least a passing knowledge of Dutch, but would not be fluent enough (or fast enough) to translate all that Dutch (especially 18th Century Dutch) quickly and efficiently. Which would explain why he enlists a Dutch cyber-hooker to translate the journal. (Okay, that’s not the only reason!)
The historical perspective places House on another path, but neither reason nor manipulation get House anywhere with the CDC doctor. Although House considers that the African men who got sick on the ship actually died of cervical tuberculosis (scrofula), he can’t really get near enough to test the theory before Julie’s dad keels over in pain.
House plans a sneak attack to get a needed head CT, but humoring Masters, he lets her try using her more honest approach. Surprising (to House, anyway) it works, but before they can transport him, he shows yet more symptoms, with more evidence for smallpox—less for the “scroffulicious” cervical TB.
But after the dad develops pustules, even House is convinced that Julie and her dad both have smallpox—for the moment. But soon, House sees something else that doesn’t fit after Masters notices that Julie has no telltale pustules on her palms and soles of her feet. House believes that the dad is reacting to the smallpox treatment he’s been receiving, but the CDC doc isn’t buying House’s earnest argument, to which he seems just as immune as he would have been to House’s “Jedi mind tricks.” (I had to get that in, along with Hugh Laurie’s spot on Obi-Wan Kenobe impression.)