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Home > Publications > Quill > Health and safety: Stories that matter


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Health and safety: Stories that matter

Jon Marshall

Few stories hit closer to home for readers and viewers than those about health and safety. The best of these stories go beyond the latest studies and the disease of the month to show how big trends affect people’s lives.

The following stories feature some of the best reporting and writing I’ve seen this year on health and safety, from toys that can kill children to a dying woman’s decision on how she wants to treat her illness.

Hospital errors

“Medical Misconnections” by David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal examines the all-too-common mistakes that hospitals make. Wahlberg reveals potentially deadly problems caused by overly tired doctors and nurses, confusion over what different color-coded warning labels mean and medical personnel putting drugs in the wrong IV, catheter, blood line or other tube.

I like how Wahlberg not only diagnoses the problems but also explores potential solutions. The project’s Web page, put together by graphic artists Jason Klein and Brent Bollenbach, contains useful advice on what patients can do to reduce the odds of a medical mistake happening to them. It also features a fun interactive graphic where readers can try to manage a hospital’s nursing schedule. a href=http://www.madison.com/wsj/projects/safety>www.madison.com/wsj/projects/safety

Dangerous toys

When children are in danger, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission isn’t doing enough to protect them, Patricia Callahan reports in an investigation in the Chicago Tribune. Her “Kids at Risk” is full of powerful examples of how the agency moved slowly or not at all when confronted with dire warnings of hazards to children.

After describing how a Seattle toddler died from a dangerous toy, she writes: “Kenny Sweet’s death is emblematic of how a weakened federal agency, in its myopic and docile approach to regulation, fails to protect children. The result: injury and death.” a href=http://www.chicagotribune.com/safety>www.chicagotribune.com/safety

Heat wave

Tracie White’s “Silent Inferno,” in the spring edition of Stanford Medicine Magazine, describes the California heat wave of 2006, which killed at least 138 people. White shifts between the last scorching day of one of the victims and the long hours spent by workers in the Fresno morgue as they handled the growing pile of corpses. White also explores the trends contributing to the deaths, including global warming, growing urbanization and the social isolation of an increasingly elderly population. a href=http://mednews.stanford.edu/stanmed/2007spring/heat.html>mednews.stanford.edu/stanmed/2007spring/heat.html

Dying wishes

Brian Voerding of the Winona (Minnesota) Daily News demonstrates how powerful narrative writing can be with his lovely “A Year to Live.” Voerding takes us through the last months in the life of Norene Oppriecht, a 65-year-old mother who decides to stop fighting the cancer that has invaded her body. Voerding fills his story with carefully chosen details, including this scene where Oppriecht and her husband, Rod, prepare to tell their children, Jennifer, Mitch and Gretchen, about the diagnosis:

At noon the family sat down to pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes and corn and squash. They sat at the formal dining room table and ate with the good silverware and drank out of the good crystal. Usually they gathered around the small table in the kitchen, but the children weren’t concerned.

This felt like a special occasion: Norene was home from the hospital and on her way to health.

When they finished, Rod told everyone to gather in the living room. Jennifer caught Mitch’s eye. He returned her gaze but didn’t say anything. Gretchen felt like she had swallowed a stone. a href=http://www.winonadailynews.com/year_to_live>www.winonadailynews.com/year_to_live.

The deadliest diseases

“Six Killers” is a terrific series in The New York Times about the diseases most likely to kill Americans. It offers the most comprehensive explanation I’ve seen of why some diseases are so deadly, what advances have been made in their treatment, and why so many people struggle to get the care they need. The series also looks at diabetes, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Alzheimer’s. a href=http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/series/sixkillers>topics.nytimes.com/top/news/health/series/sixkillers.

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