By Ted Gregory, Chicago Tribune
Jun. 22–Joseph Leija is a soft-spoken 78-year-old allergist who has been practicing medicine for 50 years.
But when he makes his way to the rooftop of a suburban medical building, he becomes something more: Dr. Pollen.
Leija is the sole provider of official pollen counts in Illinois, a critical role considering that an estimated 60 million people are suffering from allergies in the U.S. And that number is growing.
An assortment of news outlets, researchers and people suffering from maladies ranging from hay fever to asthma depend on his information.
“Sometimes my wife says I’m nuts for doing it, but it’s a challenge and I like the challenge,” Leija said. “I feel good that I can give people something I think is substantial to help them live a better life.”
Leija has been providing his counts for 12 years, ever since the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology invited him to be trained and certified in the specialty. It is a solitary job.
He wakes at 5:30 a.m. every weekday and arrives at his office in the Gottlieb Professional Building in Melrose Park by about 7:15 a.m. There he reaches for a slide coated with a thin layer of silicone.
He slips the slide in a special case and calls the security desk to say he is heading up to the roof. The security guards give him a quick weather update.
He takes the elevator to the sixth floor and climbs 24 steps to the gravel roof, where he navigates around the air conditioning equipment.
“It’s a little spooky up there sometimes,” Leija said, and not merely because the volumetric spore trap–the machine that collects airborne particles–looks like a cross between a 3-foot mosquito and a lunar module.
Once he gets to the machine, Leija pulls one slide and replaces it with another. Then he trudges back downstairs to his office, where he spends the next two hours with a microscope analyzing what turned up on the first slide.
After determining the type of pollen and calculating the day’s pollen count, Leija contacts the National Allergy Bureau with his information. Friday’s pollen count, for example, registered low levels of tree and mold pollen, and moderate levels for grass and weed pollen.
Assistants call Gottlieb Memorial Hospital staff, who place the pollen counts on the hospital’s Web site, www.gottliebhospital.org. The results also are recorded on an allergy hot line (866-476-5536) by 10 a.m.
Many local news and weather outlets take the counts from the hospital’s Web site. WGN-TV’s chief meteorologist, Tom Skilling, is called with the count, Leija said.
Other allergists, mainly at universities, also use the information for research, he added.
It clearly is a popular service. The hot line has been receiving 10,000 calls a year for the last several years, Leija said.
Or, as his office manager, Pat Pagni, said: “It spreads like wildfire. People are just very aware during the allergy season.”
Often, Leija is pressed to speculate on trends and patterns in pollen counts. He refuses, saying pollen count is too complicated and a little fickle because it is so easily influenced by humidity, rain, temperature and wind velocity. He will say the slides are much dirtier than they were when he started in 1996, although he is not sure why.
Solitary as the job may be, Leija is getting noticed.
Last year, he received the Outstanding Leadership Award in Medicine from the Des Plaines Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America. In 2006, Leija was given a public service award from the Chicago Medical Society. In 2004, the Illinois Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology gave him its distinguished service award.
And, he has the appreciation of Greg Anderson, 27, of Westchester.
“What he gives us is the real statistics,” said Anderson, who was in Leija’s Melrose Park office Friday. Anderson, who has asthma and allergic rhinitis, said the pollen count Web site is on his computer list of favorites.
“You can go other places, but most of those are just ‘guesstimates,’ ” Anderson said. “It’s so nice to have this information so we know what the weather is doing to the pollen count and how it’s affecting me.”
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