Monday, February 13, 2006

Cause of death as public health warning

I recently wrote a feature obit for a 91-year-old man, who happened to die from C. diff. Forgive my lack of medical expertise in explaining this, but apparently C. diff is synonymous with killing a patient with antibiotic therapy. It ranks high on the list of the potentially fatal side effects of being in a hospital.

I received an email from a reader, who knew the deceased. He suggested that I should have written about how this man died. By doing that, I would have enlightened readers to this terrible health risk, the emailer said. He believed it was my duty as a journalist to warn the public.

In the obits I write, I prefer to celebrate the person's life. I don't usually make a big deal about the way people die, unless it enhances the stories of their lives or gives the circumstances of death for a person, who was too young to die.

I'm big on irony - like the young mountain climber, who died of head injuries after falling down the cellar steps.

And Steve Courson, the former super-strong Pittsburgh Steeler lineman who became a poster boy for steroid abuse around 1990. I always thought steroid-inflicted heart problems would kill him. Instead, it was a tree. The tree fell on Steve while he was trying to save his dog from getting crushed by it.

It's easy to warn folks about the dangers posed by drugs. We can say that a person died from a heart condition caused by steroid abuse. We can write that a fatal heart attack was brought on by heroin addiction or that someone accidentally overdosed on prescription medicine.

But if I had said that this guy died of C. diff, then I'd have to explain what C. diff is. In this particular case, the explanation would have interrupted the flow of the story. Also, I had a limited amount of space in which to cram the man's 91 years of life. I didn't want to leave out interesting aspects of his life to belabor his agonizing death.

Give me some feedback. How do you handle this sort of thing? Do you have any stories to share regarding this?


Jade Walker said...


I think your reader made an excellent point. Though an obituary isn't the place for such information, there's no reason why you can't forward his suggestion on to one of your paper's health writers.

Just look at Peter Jennings. Hundreds of obits honored his life and accomplishments. But then many news organizations followed up those obits with articles on lung cancer.

According to one press release from the American Lung Association, 3,000 people signed up for their smoking cessation program in the wake of Peter Jennings' death from lung cancer and Dana Reeve's cancer diagnosis. Additionally the ALA's toll-free Lung HelpLine (1-800-LUNG-USA) saw a 105 percent increase in calls.

Alana Baranick said...

I actually do give tips regarding things I've learned on the death beat to our editors and/or reporters for follow-ups, Jade.

For example, while researching a recent obit (coincidentally, it was for this same 91-year-old man), I learned that the deceased's mother had died in what I believe is still the second worst nursing home fire in American history. And it happened in a rural community in northern Ohio. I gave news clips on the subject and information about an upcoming event that ties into it to the appropriate reporter.

I do like being a team player.

About C. diff: Three days before the C. diff guy's obit ran in The Plain Dealer, one of our health writers wrote a front-page story about the rapid rise in deaths from C. diff bacteria. In the last four months, we've run about a dozen stories about it. So, in this case, we already had it covered.

Jade Walker said...


I love when the obits section serves as jumping off point for broader stories on various diseases, crime, world record holders, parenting, suicide, etc.

Amy said...

Alana, my No. 1 rule is: I never make the cause of death the focus of my feature obituaries.
This serves two purposes:
1. It allows me in my rather limited space to write only about the life -- allowing one sentence for the death, and
2. It allows me to easily say "no" to crime/accident fatality stories that the news editors and other reporters want to foist on me because their staffers don't want to write the stories.

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks, Amy.

I follow the same rule - primarily for purpose No. 1: It cuts into the limited space I have for the story.

But I love purpose No. 2: Not having to work on crime/accident fatality stories when it can be handled by a non-obit-writer.

Power to the post-mortem-penners!

Claire Martin said...

Seems like if your paper had extensively recently covered C. diff, then you could just refer to the spike in deaths from that disease, with a parenthetical description for readers who missed the articles, and continue to focus on the guy's life.

Here, the editors tell me not to write about people whose deaths make headlines. Maybe because of our approach to obits, the general reporters have started including personal anecdotes about the dead folks' lives in the news stories, so they're more than just a traffic fatality or whatever.
This particular rule would distress me a LOT if I worked in Florida instead of Colorado, but people here generally pass on in less colorful, non-Carl-Hiaasen-novel ways.

That rule doesn't apply to the deaths of civic pillars and First-to folks though.

Right now there seems to be an anti-suicide rule, too, which I think is wrong-headed on a lot of different counts.

Alana Baranick said...

Hey, Claire.

If this had been a standard obit, I might have shared the cause of death, explaining what the heck it is in a parenthetic phrase and pointing out that it has been in the news. Or not. This guy was 91. I don't think many readers would have wondered what caused his death.

But this obit was "A Life Story," my weekly feature that was inspired by your paper's "A Colorado Life." (For those who don't know, Claire writes for the Denver Post.)

"A Life Story" in The Plain Dealer is always a 20-inch story. Most of the time, I don't want to sacrifice space in which I can celebrate the person's life for the purpose of elaborating on what caused their death.

Sometimes, of course, I have to explain why a person, who would be considered too young to die, is dead. Sometimes the illness is integral to the person's life.

I don't elect to do obits for people whose deaths already have been addressed in our paper. I think it's unfair to bump obits for decedents whose deaths we have not announced in favor of those whose deaths have already been reported.

Our non-obit-writers always try to include obit-like touches in stories about traffic fatalities and homicide victims. When possible, they also give funeral information or at least the name of the mortuary that will be handling the arrangements. If they can't get the personal side of the stiff's story, the accident or murder story becomes a law-and-order brief.

We generally don't write obits for people, who commit suicide, unless they are public figures or have killed themselves in public. And even then, it would normally be addressed by the reporter on the police beat or whatever.

By the way, I wouldn't equate Carl Hiaasen's characters' bizarre deaths with the norm in Florida. The Sunshine State is overloaded with old folks, circling the drain. My family regards Florida as God's waiting room.

Amy said...

Claire, could you tell me a little more about the anti-suicide rule at your paper, if you know it? The Oregonian is just now forming a newsroom-wide committee to study our coverage of suicides. I'm not on this committee, but one of the other obit writers is, and I think it would be good to get a discussion going on that.
I've done at least four life stories of people who died of suicide, and I've always noted it in the story. Following my Rule No. 1, I never make the suicide the focus of the story but dispense with it in less than a paragraph.

Claire Martin said...

At Alana's suggestion, let's start a suicide thread.
Meanwhile, I'll see if I can get the editors to be more specific.