Commitment and Passion -
an interview with Brooke Decker
by Pam Horter-Moore
I think the surge of the Covid-19 virus has given many of us time to consider the sacrifice and dedication of our healthcare professionals, many of whom have worked tirelessly over the last six months to heal the sick and stop the advance of the pandemic.
Since March, I’ve been wanting to interview Brooke Decker for an Orchid Gems article, since she is a recent member of the OSWP who quickly made an impact upon the Society with her involvement and contributions, and with her recent appointment to the OSWP Board of Directors. However, not surprisingly, Brooke has had other, more pressing matters to consider, and she has been extraordinarily busy: She is the Director of Infection Prevention at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, which has campuses in Oakland and Aspinwall.
I was therefore very pleased to get a chance to talk with Brooke about her career, her family, and her love of orchids.
Brooke attended the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, where she attained two Bachelor’s degrees in four years: a B.S. in Biology, and a B.A. in Psychology. She graduated from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland in 2007.
“I have a special interest in waterborne infections, but am now into Covid-19, especially with this latest outbreak that is spreading among healthy individuals, requiring contact tracing,” says Brooke.
“It was especially busy in early March, with preparation to deal with the pandemic. Early in my career, I studied waterborne infections like Legionella. Later, I worked on the Ebola outbreak, and then, the unusual pneumonia outbreak reported in China in December. Covid-19 was particularly bad until mid-May, when we experienced a brief let-up, but this latest surge came at the end of June.”
Brooke was in medical school in 2004, when a friend of hers who grew Phalaenopsis induced her to accompany her to an orchid show at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens. Her interest was piqued, and she purchased her first orchid, a yellow delicately spotted Phalaenopsis with an orange lip. “I managed to keep that orchid alive for 10 years,” she says. Her second purchase was a Dendrobium from Trader Joe’s.
When she went to Hawaii to celebrate her parents’ renewal of their wedding vows, Brooke’s orchid collecting began in earnest. “On Hawaii’s largest island, I discovered a grower with an amazing shop, Akatsuka Orchids. The variety of orchids was staggering, and featured exotic and rare orchids as well as common ones. I purchased five orchids there, and four are still alive: Cattleya “Chocolate Drop,” which has been a reliable bloomer; a Coelogyne which is large, green, and leafy, but doesn’t produce blooms for me; a Dendrobium microchip, Bulbophyllum “Kathy’s Gold,” and a (now deceased) Miltoniopsis who was much less tolerant of my sometimes low-humidity situation.”
Perhaps Brooke’s love of orchids was in her blood to begin with, and Cleveland certainly holds a place in that story. Her Aunt Helen and Uncle Don lived outside Cleveland and had been growing orchids since the 1970s. Uncle Don has long passed away, but Brooke only recently lost her Aunt Helen.
She was pleased to inherit the slipper orchids from her aunt’s collection. “There is a lot of sentiment around these orchids,” says Brooke. “I still have a part of my aunt to enjoy and appreciate every time her orchids come into bloom.”
When Brooke moved from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., she was able to keep most of her plants alive, although her work as a Critical Care and ID Fellow at the NIH under Dr. Anthony Fauci kept her busy as she participated in the protocols developed to combat Ebola before coming to Pittsburgh in 2014. Here, she purchased her first house, which gave her more room for more orchids.
Brooke married, and had her daughter Willow in 2016. As other priorities claimed her attention, Brooke lost a lot of orchids. She remained very interested in the hobby, and considered reaching out to the OSWP, but wondered whether she would fit in.
When Willow was two years old, Brooke felt comfortable enough to leave her daughter in the care of her husband while she spent more time exploring her interest in orchids and in the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania. She joined with a family membership at the March 2019 Orchid Show. “Willow must be one of the Society’s youngest members,” she jokes.
Brooke’s doubts dissolved upon joining OSWP. “I discovered that the Society has members of all ages, and that they are a friendly, good-humored group of people who are wonderful to be around.” She appreciates the playfulness, camaraderie, and fellowship that make the Society an especially warm organization.
Brooke has been active in the Society from the beginning, sharing her successes during the Show and Tell segments of our meetings, making suggestions, and getting involved. “Sheila and I are trying to determine a way to safely continue member orchid sales in the midst of this pandemic,” she reports.
Brooke’s enthusiasm makes her a natural for a chair on the OSWP Board of Directors, where her contributions are greatly appreciated. She helps whenever she can, and graciously let us use her Zoom account for the OSWP Virtual Picnic on July 26.
Currently, Brooke has about 55 orchids. “I’m particularly fond of cats – the furry kind as well as the kind that bloom. I have around 24 Catasetum and nine Cattleyas.” She also has Dendrobium, and Bulbophyllum. “I’ve recently developed an interest in slipper orchids,” Brooke adds. She has eight.
Work naturally occupies much of Brooke’s time right now. She works steady Monday through Friday, but even on the weekends, she must make reports, follow tracing, and guarantee that medical protocols are followed. Because she is the clinical resource for the hospital, she is always taking phone calls, counseling RNs, training and educating staff, and writing policies, regardless of the day of the week.
“I like working with infectious diseases. Medicine and science are a calling that requires commitment and passion. Medicine is not too distinct from the growing of orchids: you put in the training and the hours, you do what is required to help others and to make orchids thrive.
If you love to do it, it isn’t a burden.”