For me, it’s meant thinking back to 1972 when I was a graduate student in journalism at Columbia University in New York City. On many days I would be sent down to Room 9 at New York City’s City Hall to hang out with the veteran reporters who made that their base. I would stay close to the reporters from The New York Times – seasoned, savvy old-timers who saw right through the bluster of politicians. I wanted to be like them.
But life takes its twists and turns. I never worked for The New York Times, I never even applied. I headed to broadcast news. Maybe I could be like Edward R. Murrow. I had a year of learning all about him from his producer, Fred Friendly, my advisor. Maybe there would be a place for me at CBS News, in my mind the best of the best? I tried, but it never happened.
So the twists and turns continued, from North Carolina, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles. Maybe being a screenwriter would be fun? Start with a blank page and start typing. I gravitated to a journalism story – sort of. The story of an anchorman with a nose that kept getting bigger. My nose on steroids. With my writing partner, Don Altman, we titled it “Schnozz.” We even got an agent who sent us around to producers at the studios. Nobody said yes but a few said “maybe.” It was tantalizing but you could go broke waiting for a positive phone call.
So I moved on to producing “mini-documentaries,” short videos for broadcast and cable television. My best customer was, believe it or not, The Playboy Channel. An executive producer there named Jeff Pill liked me and kept giving me assignments. One day he asked me to fly to Atlanta to produce a segment on what we then called “impotence” but later, when Bob Dole started starring in Viagra commercials, started calling “erectile dysfunction.” While at the convention of the American Urological Association a vice president of marketing for a penile implant manufacturer spotted me with a camera crew. He asked if I could produce a patient education video for them. I had no idea what that was, but decided to give it a try. This was my entrée into producing communications for specific populations of patients. That was 1984. The video featured real men and their wives and partners talking frankly about sex and their desire to overcome illness that limited their sex life. Back then it was a novel approach and the video won several national awards. The vice president of the implant company advised me to forget screenwriting and Playboy and do more work for patients. My wife, Esther, joined me, and we followed his advice.
Now flash forward to 1996. By then we had moved to Seattle and we’d produced many videos and some new Internet webcasts for patients. Suddenly, some recurrent nose bleeds and a visit to the doctor made me a patient too – a leukemia patient. I then learned leukemia was a type of cancer in the blood. I was terrified. I had “the big C” and the future was uncertain.
I am not an especially religious person but I believe there was a message in my diagnosis. The message was: THIS is your path in journalism. Tell your story, tell the story of others, and bring information to patients from a patient’s perspective. That is what I have done first with HealthTalk.com and, since 2005, with Patient Power. I am honored to tell you that several of the people who worked with me early on – Cathi White, Thea Nyberg Burris, Autumn Eadon, Gino Espinosa and Susan Nixon – still work with me today. Pat Elliott, a healthcare public relations pro with a journalism background, worked with Esther and me in Los Angeles on one of those Playboy Channel medical documentaries back in the 80’s (one on “Sex and People with Disabilities,” a breakthrough topic back then). Pat, a two time cancer survivor, found Patient Power on the Internet as she did her research on leukemia and we reconnected. She too works with me today and has her own cancer personal journalism journey.
And there are others on our team who found our mission compelling and changed their personal journey. About six years ago Tamara Lobban-Jones found us from Houston. She shifted her aspirations of being a TV journalist to finding her niche with me as an Internet cancer journalist. Three years ago my son, Ari, introduced me to a colleague from an internship – Brian Blankinship, a recent architecture graduate who had transitioned to engage grateful patients at the cardiovascular institute at the University of Michigan. He joined us, devoting his design skills to help Patient Power better bring information to patients. And then here in Barcelona, where my family moved almost two years ago, a friend introduced us to Christine Monaco, an American video editor/producer with vast experience who moved to Spain because of her spouse’s job. Chris, who lost her mother to cancer, joined the team too and has helped propel our efforts in several languages to help cancer patients in Europe.
Now with all of us working together virtually, and with associates in California, London, Germany, France, Italy, and here in Spain we are truly excited about having a global impact on cancer patient education and empowerment. Many of us get to meet in person at in-person forums and many cancer medical meetings. But we most enjoy “meeting” and serving you every day online.
Nobody wishes for a cancer diagnosis. But when it comes it can propel you to make your professional skills more focused and applied more meaningfully. I know that has happened for me and for my colleagues. As we begin 2014 I am truly energized about making a difference by leading my great team to do more for patients – from the patient’s perspective. THEY are our “customer” and we are one with them. I know as long as we do what’s right for the patient, we will do what’s right.
Thank you for following me on this journey and joining in. Cancer survivorship gives us a chance to do more and you can expect a lot of “more” from Patient Power in 2014!
Wishing you and your family a Happy New Year and the best of health!