Sunday, June 3, 2012

Behind the Story

My husband, Cecil, is sixty days into his stem cell transplant. Cells from the cords of two infants were introduced on April 3rd. The babies, as we call them, would compete and, eventually, one would take over. Cecil’s new immune system would come from that child.

We learned both babies were girls and that one of them had B+ blood type and the other was O+. Tests began to show that one of the babies was pulling ahead in the DNA count. We were dying to know which one it was, but the reports didn’t reveal that information. Day after day, counts came in, but the donor cells bore only identification numbers.

Curiosity was getting the best of me and about sixty of our closest people. “Ask them which one it is,” I kept pressing. Cecil said it didn’t matter and he was right. But still, the rest of us wanted to know. The cells came from two different babies. Each baby was a separate child with her own life. One of them would, without knowing it, rescue him. The main story was the stem cell transplant, but the story behind that story was the child herself. It made a difference which one it was. You don’t conjure generic stories; you conjure particular stories. We wanted to put a name to the child that had rescued Cecil and given him life again. She was the story behind the story.

All too often, the best part of a story is not as flashy as the headline. People are drawn to the juicy stuff. So, storytelling finds itself focused somewhere off center, out on the fringes of life’s most common experiences.

When federal prosecutors went after Cecil in their effort to control the practice of pain management, the story should have been about Cecil’s medical decisions and his treatment of patients. Instead, reporters succumbed to temptation and created headlines about silly details of the case that had nothing to do with the charges. It was not until the attention-grabbers ran out, or became old hat, that the media went looking for new material. When they did, they discovered the real story: Cecil was a most unusual physician whose patients were as dedicated to him as he was to them. Only then did media coverage begin to shift. Only then did the public start to get a sense that prosecutors had forced their way into the practice of medicine. People needed to know that story. The media needed to do their job.

That lesson came to me years ago when I was a journalist. My first job was in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was weekend anchor and a general assignment reporter for the CBS affiliated station.

My first week at the station I covered a story about gang violence. We pulled up behind the car of a man who had been shot to death in a drive-by, and I got out to see what was what.  I opened the driver’s door and leaned in. When I put my hand on the back of the seat, I felt something wet and gooey squish between my fingers. It didn’t take long for me to figure out it was the victim’s brain matter. As I hastened my way out of the car, I saw the dead man’s flip-flop still in place on the gas pedal.  Moments before, he had been driving down the street.  Now his brains were sticking to my fingers, and the last vestige of his life was a flip-flop on the gas pedal.

Other reporters quipped about the brains and directed their photographers to get a good shot. I couldn’t get passed the flip flop. On that night’s newscasts, other stations led with Shooting Victim’s Brains Found Splattered on Car Seat. My story was about a young man who had gotten caught up in violence and crime. It was about the reasons he found himself down that wayward path, and it was about the two young children who would grow up without their daddy. Of what use to society was the knowledge that the man’s brains had splattered onto the seat? Yet that's what people talked about.

The very next day, I was dispatched to cover a suspicious odor emanating from a house. We got there as the police arrived and broke down the door. Just inside, the remains of an old man were sprawled on the staircase. Long hair lay around him on the stairs, framing a stark and shriveling face. It was odd because he had begun to decompose, but he was still wearing his red plaid flannel shirt and black ankle-high boots.

I pictured the poor guy tumbling down the stairs. Had he survived for a while and died slowly, alone? Why didn’t anyone notice that he hadn’t been around?  My camera man, Howard, and I looked at each other. For a few seconds, we stood quietly. Then he picked up his camera and said “Go get your story.” To me, the story was an old man who was all alone in life when he died on a staircase. Others framed it in terms of Skeleton Found Sprawled on Stairs After Neighbors Notice Foul Smell. I have little doubt their headlines generated more audience than mine did. But, I think people care more about an old man dying alone than they do about a foul smell in the neighborhood.  

By the end of my first week on the job, I was torn. I knew our audience wanted the blood and gore, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that kind of reporter. I decided to follow a different standard, but it was a constant struggle. One of my last assignments in Providence has stuck with me these many years.  

I was doing a live shot on the railroad tracks, where a man had tried to scoot across in the path of an oncoming train. He didn’t make it. As Howard gave me the cue to go live…in ten, nine, eight, seven… I looked down to gather my thoughts, and saw the accident victim’s detached eyeball resting against my foot. It took me a second to realize what I was looking at and, by the time I did, I was on the air.

For some reason I bent over to pick up the eyeball. It was the sort of grisly find that has sent girls running and screaming throughout the ages, but, inexplicably, I reached down to pick it up with my bare hand. Howard flailed and stomped from behind the camera. He was rolling his hand in an emphatic circle off to his side, reminding me I was on the air and needed to say something now.
By my foot was a loose eyeball, with a long something or other stringing out the back and several fleshy strands dangling from the sides. In front of me was a news camera, its imposing red light demanding that I act like a professional and turn this situation around. After what seemed like way too long (especially for Howard), I went with the red light. I talked to the viewers about what had happened on this remote stretch of train track, where a man had acted carelessly in an instant, and then lost everything.

When the live shot ended, another reporter, who had been standing off to the side, came up to me. “Why didn’t you lead with the eyeball?” He asked.
“It’s not the story.”

“I’d have gone with it anyway.”

“Then I’m glad it was on my foot and not yours.”

Often, the important story lies behind the flash that feeds morbid curiosity. The real story will expose injustice, educate society, or maybe enlighten the human condition. The real story is not usually the eyeball on the ground.

And so, when we learned that Little Miss B+ had carried the day for Cecil, the story was not Cells From Baby Used in Controversial Medical Procedure. The story for us was that we are connected in ways we have yet to discover to a precious child, who is playing somewhere today as a five-year-old. She and Cecil have the same immune system. She is fighting his battles. A part of her is living within him. We want the child and her parents to know the difference they have made, but likely we will never get the chance to tell them.

Little Miss B+ is the story that lives behind the medical technology. She is the story we should all look for when life’s highlights come our way.


  1. Beautiful words to live by. Yes, it's the people behind the story--Cecil, Miss B+, the man who didn't beat the train--we should be remembering. Thanks for the continuing reminder that people are inherently both good and curious. May we all stay both.

  2. God has created some very interesting people. May his love and strength fill you and your wonderful family, Donna. Wish I could be there for his birthday.

  3. Great and important story. I'm glad everything is moving in such a positive direction. Cheers!