Healthy Journalism

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Remembering the immortal book tour

About two weeks before Publisher’s Weekly predicted that Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks had the makings of a national bestseller, I had the same thought. My hunches are not usually as good as this one turned out to be, but as Jimmy Carter used to say, “even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.”

Skloot was organizing her own book tour and was neither rich nor famous yet. HMJ at UGA often helps bring speakers to campus, and this time we had no trouble finding others who wanted to hear the human story behind HeLa cells. Grady’s “professional in residence” program, departments of cellular biology, genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, and microbiology, as well as the complex carbohydrate center chipped in. And the Willson Center for Arts and Humanities did campus-wide publicity.

On February 2, Skloot was on NPR’s Fresh Air for the whole hour, great reviews piled up, and then there was The Colbert Report. By mid-March, she was the “it” girl of serious nonfiction. Pretty soon she had publicists and event coordinators and a speakers bureau.

Fortunately, Skloot remembered the folks who signed on early and kept her promise to visit UGA on March 25.

Skloot gave a compelling talk to a large audience at Miller Learning Center and fielded questions deftly.

The UGA Bookstore was on hand to sell The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and fans crowded around to continue the discussion and have their books signed.

HMJ graduate students made the short trip to my home, traveling by car and bicycle for the after party. It was one of those rare spring evenings in Georgia, when the rain clears off and leaves perfect temperatures and no flying insects.

We shared a delicious meal featuring eggplant parmesan, salad, and lime-glazed poundcake prepared by chef Meriwether Rhodes. Conversation centered on reporting and storytelling and the kind of passion and patience required to work on a project for a decade – especially when key sources are mistrustful and elusive in the beginning. Stick with it, Rebecca said. Be clear about what you’re doing and earn trust. Do meticulous research, dig up documents, and get the story right.

Shortly before Rebecca rode off into the night, bound for more book tour events in Atlanta the following day, there was the obligatory group portrait on the sofa. It was a memorable evening for HMJ at UGA.

[Photography by Jackie Reedy.]

Monday, April 5, 2010

Eat right, keep fit, die anyway

At my house, we refer to them collectively as "the fish." As in, have you fed the fish, checked the water temperature, or dipped leaves out of the pond.

Our stewardship of the 13 koi who came with the house is at the public health level: they're all fed at once and we tailor the type of food to the water temperature. Their water is clean and they have room and leisure time to exercise.

But last month one of them died with no warning. No swellings or lesions that popped up and worsened with time, no unbalanced swimming or gasping to signal trouble. All 13 looked fine when I fed them that morning and they broke the surface and competed for their share of the color-enhancing floating koi kibble. That evening, one was still.

A friend had dubbed this fish "Braniff" because he was solid white with a bright orange tail, reminding her of a Swedish airline that added brightly-colored tails to its planes as a kind of pop-art lark back in the 1970s. He was one of six fish born and raised in the pond, not one of the seven who came there as small fry.

When I called the pond guy, worried that an undetected infection might be about to kill them all, he said no, the fish had simply reached a certain age. Brace yourself for more deaths, he said. These fish are over 20, and that's old.

Twelve of them are still swimming around today, thanks to the sound hygiene, diet and exercise measures they enjoy.

Back when I was editing the Harvard Health Letter, whose loyal subscribers sometimes seemed to believe they could keep the inevitable at bay, someone gave me a button that said "Eat right, keep fit, die anyway."

Braniff's death sent the same message: Memento mori, fish style.

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