For infectious disease specialist Dr. Emily Wood, every patient who walks through the door represents a mystery waiting to be solved.

“A lot of it is like doing detective work,” said Wood, who splits her time between InterMed, Maine Medical Center and other hospitals.

Infectious diseases are caused by pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and various other germs. There are hundreds, spanning the entire alphabet from AIDS to Zygomycosis (fungal infections that can target a range of bodily regions).

The pathogens themselves are often invisible to the naked eye, so the key to proper diagnosis is identifying the associated symptoms and prescribing the right tests and treatment.

Working in Portland offers the perfect mix of being in a community that is small enough that most colleagues know each other, but still big enough that it attracts a variety of patients from throughout the region, including those with the occasional exotic disease, Wood said.

“From a nerdy standpoint, I enjoy interesting cases,” she said.

Regardless of how rare or mundane the disease, Wood believes an important part of her job is helping patients understand clearly what they are dealing with. No patient should walk away from a consultation confused about their diagnosis or prognosis, she said.

“I put it to them in plain terms they actually understand,” Wood said.

As intriguing as it can be, a physician’s life presents challenges, she said. It can take years to earn enough money to comfortably pay down medical school loans, and the medical profession’s heavy demands can make it difficult to maintain a healthy balance between work and private life.

Still, Wood, who has two young children, said it can be done, and that the work of a medical detective is often rewarding.

“I like working with patients,” she said.