From pills to Pulitzer

New MD Sheri Fink didn’t even attend her medical school graduation, preferring instead to follow her heart into investigative journalism. Her recent Pulitzer Prize testifies to the fact that there’s more than one way to heal the world.

By
May 30, 2010 05:31
Sheri Fink

Sheri Fink 311. (photo credit: BGU)

After graduating from one of the best medical schools in the US – Stanford University – one would have expected Sheri Fink to devote herself to doctoring or medical research and maybe one day winning a Nobel Prize. But Fink, the daughter of a longtime journalist at various newspapers including the Detroit News, has printer’s ink in her veins, and didn’t even attend her own medical school graduation, choosing instead to go to the Kosovo-Macedonia border to investigate reports that patients had been ejected from Kosovo’s hospitals during a Serbian military campaign.

Last week, she received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize – America’s highest journalism award – for investigative reporting for her 13,000-word piece published simultaneously on a nonprofit Internet journalism site and in the print edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine on desperate medical staffers at a New Orleans hospital – cut off from supplies after Hurricane Katrina – who hastened the deaths of patients.

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She was born in Detroit and has one brother, a political researcher in Michigan. Even before getting her MD, Fink was outraged by stories of Nazi medical experimentation during the Holocaust and set up a campus group, Students Against Genocide, to coordinate anti-genocide activities on campuses nationwide during the Balkan wars and provide educational and activist materials to university groups.

“I had expected to go into residency, but the course of my career changed. It was a very difficult decision,” she told The Jerusalem Post in an interview during a visit earlier this month. “I put a lot of thought into it. I think my father was happy with my choice, even though he himself left journalism to become a media lawyer. I had always loved writing. After finishing medical school, I received a mass media fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and fell in love with journalism. I don’t see myself going back to clinical practice. I know it is hard to make a living in journalism now, but I love it.”

The 42-year-old journalist/physician was here recently to deliver an inspirational lecture to the graduating class of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Medical School for International Health (in collaboration with New York’s Columbia University Medical Center) of 2010.

The school, which teaches foreign students –
mostly from the US – in English, was established by BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences in 1996 when Prof. Rivka Carmi – now BGU president – was dean of the faculty. The four-year medical degree program aims at producing doctors with special skills and cultural sensitivity in primary care and community, preventive and population-based medicine who are eager to devote themselves to the poor, ill and needy. Currently, the international school is headed by geriatrician Prof. Mark Clarfield.

“This is a very special medical school, maybe unique in the world for its international focus,” Fink told the graduating class at the ceremony dressed in BGU’s cap and gown. She urged them, as doctors, always to remain a student of medicine, curious to learn about new things in their fields and to realize that there were things they did not know. “Even your outstanding medical education here does not provide all the answers,” she said. She urged the graduates to “think about problems you feel are fascinating and won’t get tired trying to solve. Think what makes you passionate and follow those. International medicine as we define it today is a young field. You will truly be the future of it.”

FINK, WHO earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in neuroscience, was “embedded” as a journalist in an American government field hospital after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. She advised the new graduates that sometimes help can come from an unexpected source, recalling victims she had met who had great difficulty breathing but were saved at the last minute when oxygen tanks were found to keep them alive. When resources are short, she continued, there can be new opportunities.

After Katrina, the medical infrastructure collapsed, and hospitals were unable to evacuate and meet needs. Creative thinking and compassion by individuals, both medical staffers and volunteers, saved lives, she said.

Fink first saw the rescue and medical-relief skills of Israeli doctors and nurses at a military field hospital they set up for Kosovo refugees in Macedonia in 1999. She was “incredibly impressed,” as she was again more recently after hearing what Israeli civilian and military medical teams had done in Port-au-Prince.

Seven years ago, Fink authored a gripping book about war and suffering based on her experiences in the former Yugoslavia. She chronicled the true-life experiences of the doctors and nurses in a besieged city, illuminating the passions, challenges, tragedies and agonizing moral quandaries of practicing medicine in a war zone starting in 1992. In April 1992, a handful of young physicians – not one of them a surgeon – was trapped along with 50,000 men, women and children in the embattled enclave of Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. There the doctors faced the most intense professional, ethical and personal predicaments of their lives.

FINK SPENT four-and-a-half years conducting extensive interviews, amassing documents and recording stories to tell in the 431-page book, War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival (PublicAffairs Books) – a harrowing and ultimately enlightening story about medical staffers coping with painful ethical quandaries in a makeshift hospital overflowing with patients. The book, produced in print and electronic Kindle versions, has been widely praised.

After the book was published, Fink worked mostly as a freelance reporter for papers such as The New York Times, as well as radio and other broadcasting outlets. Then, in 2008, history was made when the Sandler Family Foundation of San Francisco initiated a nonprofit Web site that would produce high-quality investigative journalism articles without dependence on advertisers to expose violations of public trust.

Paul Steiger, editor of The Wall Street Journal for years, was recruited as editor-in-chief, and he hired a few dozen reporters and editors. Called ProPublica, the site made Fink a staff journalist, and it was on that site that her Katrina article was published simultaneously with The New York Times. It was the first time that an article produced by a Web site won a Pulitzer.

HUNGARIAN-BORN Joseph Pulitzer was the very embodiment of American journalism in the latter years of the 19th century. An intense, indomitable figure, Pulitzer was known as the most skillful of newspaper publishers – “a passionate crusader against dishonest government, a fierce, hawk-like competitor who did not shrink from sensationalism in circulation struggles, and a visionary who richly endowed his profession.”

His innovative New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch reshaped newspaper journalism. Pulitzer was the first to call for the university training of journalists – and the Pulitzer Prizes awarded since 1917 for excellence in journalism (later also for excellence in literature, music and drama) on the basis of his 1904 will have raised the standards of the US media.

The Pulitzer Prize Web site, which announced the 2010 winners on April 12, cited Fink and her article “for a distinguished example of investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series, in print or on-line or both.” The article was a story that “chronicles the urgent life-and-death decisions made by one hospital’s exhausted doctors when they were cut off by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.”

A separate $10,000 prize in this category was won by Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News for their “resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.”

Katrina was a major event in August 2005. Months later, a doctor and two nurses at New Orleans’s Memorial Medical Center, which had been cut off from the outside world by floodwaters, were arrested for second-degree murder for allegedly dosing patients with morphine and another drug, leading to their deaths, Fink recalled. “When I heard that three well-respected medical professionals were being accused of murder, the story caught my attention.”

Fink, who had worked with aid organizations around the world, decided to go there. “I made many trips and interviewed around 140 people, some of them several times. I started working in February 2007, and the article appeared in 2009.” In the US, patients or their designated proxy can request a “do not resuscitate” order, which means doctors should not try to restart a patient’s heart or breathing if it stops. But giving drugs with the intention of hastening death is not permitted, Fink noted.

THE LONG resulting article was a highly detailed reconstructed narrative – a very complicated form of journalism. There had been no running water or electricity. Many of those involved at the hospital were reluctant to talk to her, but some were eventually willing to be interviewed and even to be quoted – perhaps because they wanted a chance to tell what had really happened, the journalist/physician speculated. The hospital had been a trusted institution since the 1920s, and the allegations of “mercy killings” tarnished its reputation. It has since been bought by another health-care company, renovated and partly reopened as a private community hospital.

The ethical issues raised in her article aroused a national discussion of how desperate and pressured medical staffers should decide who lives and who dies when resources are extremely limited. As a result of Fink’s work, the city coroner’s office reinvestigated one death from morphine overdose, and members of a medical panel read the article when they met to produce national guidelines on coping with medical emergencies like that after Katrina.

“The article generated a lot of discussion,” she recalled. “I was pleased that the responses were nuanced. People really thought about the issues.” But she was really surprised that she became a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize and then was told she had won it.

Dismissals of American journalists and the closing of numerous papers is “very disheartening for journalists trying to do responsible journalism. The papers are clearly cutting back. But our work is important to democracy. I believe there is a future for journalists, but I don’t know what model will support it. A lot of great journalism is being done. The nonprofit foundations could be a partial answer, but there have to be other models as well.”

While Fink is currently working on another nonfiction book on disaster medicine, she is not sure whether she is capable of writing a novel. “I don’t know whether I am creative enough,” she suggested.

Based on her writing until now, and as a new Pulitzer Prize winner, Sheri Fink is undoubtedly creative enough.


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