Medicine as Both Art and Science

By: Lucia Moses

Medical writer Diana K. Sugg can think of at least two reasons why she wasn’t The Sun‘s best hope for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. One is that her own medical issues — neurological problems, including strokes and seizures, over the last 12 years — have sometimes disrupted her work for the Baltimore paper, even leading to emergency visits to the hospital. The other is that while some on her beat make headlines with stories about big breakthroughs, she prefers covering “softer” subjects, such as the growing hospital practice of letting families be present for a “code,” their loved ones’ final moments, or advances in stopping the lethal but little-known disease called sepsis.

Over the years, Sugg has had to fight for space in the paper, and she has questioned whether her coverage is “hard-core enough.” But if her stories haven’t resulted in sweeping changes in the law, they have captured the human drama that plays out in the practice of medicine.

In the “code” story in her prize-winning package, Sugg wrote about a mother who presided over the death of her 11-year-old son Ryan: “Now, every night, the brothers Ryan left behind, Kevin, 10, and David, 6, wrap up in his blue knit blanket and cuddle with his pillow. And someday, when they are ready, their mother knows they will come to her with questions.

“Because Donna King was there for every minute, she will be able to tell them that after Ryan heard her voice, his heart started long enough for their father to get there, that the doctors did everything they could, and that she and her husband stood over their brother, hugging him until he was gone. Almost as if he had just fallen asleep.”

Speaking of Sugg’s stories, Pete Carey, a Pulitzer Prize winner himself and one of the jurors in the beat-reporting category who narrowed down the number of entrants, says: “Some of them just grabbed you and wouldn’t let you go. She put a face on medicine in a way not too many are able to do.”

Sugg, 37, says she gets her stories by having great patience in building trust with hospital personnel and having a personality that puts patients at ease. “My own situation definitely gave me insight and shaped the stories I wrote and the ones I was drawn to,” she adds. “There are so many questions that haven’t been asked. I tried to look for questions that haven’t been thought about.”

One source frequently leads her to another — and Sugg has to talk to all of them. People have told her she overreports. But during a final interview for the “code” article, it was a nurse’s offhand comment that led her to write another story about how doctors break the news to people that their loved ones didn’t make it. This, too, was part of The Sun‘s 15th Pulitzer Prize-winning package.

Sugg says she “never thought in a million years” she’d see the day when she would come away with a Pulitzer Prize: “I guess this shows I was accomplishing more than I thought I was.”

See links to the winning journalism.

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