Excerpt from Damaged Heart
3:30 p.m. Tuesday
Ed Clark's editor bellowed from the hub of the city room, "Clark, c'mere! What are you working on?"
"Uh, well, I've been following that guy who claims the election was stolen from him in the Eighth Ward."
"Yeah, well, drop that one. Turn it over to Schmick. I want you to look into something sexier. I want you to nail these damn doctors and HMO's that are squeezing the shit out of sick people. My aunt Ruthie, down in Florida, got kicked out of the hospital because - they said - her insurance ran out. They sent her home before she could even walk out the door. She's got a lousy infection in her leg, needs a skin graft and rehab, but they just sent her home. Anyway, this crap is happening all over the country. I want you to do a series. Follow some doctor and patient for a week or so. Get the human interest stuff in there. Make it personal. Grab the reader. Make 'em weep. You know how. We'll plaster the first story across the top of the Sunday paper and run three or four daily follow-up features."
"Starting this Sunday, Commodore?"
"Nah. I know it'll take you a couple o' weeks, but get right on it. Who knows? Maybe you'll win us another Pulitzer."
Clark hustled across the city room. He always hustled. Young, eager, ambitious, abrasive, but every reporter and editor recognized him as the paper's most graceful writer.
"June, who's the most knowledgeable, quotable doctor in town?" he asked the medical reporter.
"Why?" She instantly suspected Clark of butting into her beat.
"The Commodore wants me to personalize a story about how the system is hurting patients - like his Aunt Ruthie - and I gotta follow some doc around to personalize it."
"So this isn't strictly a medical story?"
"No, don't worry, I won't scoop you on the latest advance in medical technology. This is going to be a series on the politics of the system, how the patient gets lost in the system, or treated badly, I guess."
"Well, if you want a hot shot doctor who isn't afraid to speak his mind, call Charlie Gates over at University Medical Center. He's a cardiologist, nationally tops in his field clinically and academically. An older guy who's secure enough to tell you honestly how the system has changed for the worse. Hates the media, though. Thinks we're too liberal. Here's his number. Good luck. If he'll talk to you, you'll get great quotes."
Clark paced the city room, guzzled a Diet Pepsi, and thought about how to approach this Gates. He didn't have time to do much research but he had a good instinct for the story even without first-hand knowledge from an Aunt Ruthie. He decided just to call Gates cold and see what would happen.
Surprisingly, no answering machine. Dr. Gates' prissy-sounding secretary put him straight through. Gates' voice was gruff but not uncordial.
"I'd like to do a series of feature stories," Clark began, "about what's really happening in medicine today, what's really going on with doctors, nurses, HMOs, and how it all affects the patient. I realize that sounds like a tall order, but I think we can make it clear to the reader if I personalize it by following a doctor around for a few days. Would you be willing to let me do that?"
Clark was dumbstruck by Gates' quick response.
"You won't be able to use patients' names or recount individual cases, of course, to protect confidentiality, but I'll talk to you on the record about how I see things," Gates added. "Those ground rules okay with you?"
"Fine. Want to start the day at seven a.m. tomorrow in my office?"
"Yes, sir. I'll be there. Thank you." Clark usually slept until nine or ten, but he was amazed at how readily this big wheel doctor was willing to cooperate on this story. Either dumb luck or Clark had struck a chord. He wondered what Gates was really like. He went back to June Higgens.
"You'll see for yourself," she said. "But the fact that he's so willing to talk with you tells you something, doesn't it? You know he's breaking all kinds of sacred rules at the University Medical Center by talking to you without prior approval and without a PR flak tagging along to put the administration's spin on everything. I've heard other physicians say that Gates considers those policies 'medical fascism,' or an assault on academic freedom. You may just have yourself a good source."