The 2008 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 10, 2009
The Hamilton Spectator: Following an extended outbreak of Clostridium Difficile at Burlington’s Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital that claimed the lives of 91 elderly patients, the newspaper began investigating. The coverage was crucial to action taken by the Ontario government to increase funding for infection control and require hospitals in the province to report publicly on outbreaks of C. Difficile infections.
YOUR EXCELLENCIES, DISTINGUISHED GUESTS, AND FELLOW NOMINEES
On behalf of my teammates Naomi Powell, Carmela Fragomeni and Denise Davy, and also our editor-in-chief, David Estok, thank you for this honour – especially in the presence of so many colleagues from other media whose work is so strongly representative of journalism that makes a difference.
Last May, a small, crowded hospital in our area disclosed that 91 elderly patients infected with the superbug – the hospital superbug C. difficile – had died in a two-year outbreak that had never been made public. As well, they disclosed that experts that they had called in, after fruitlessly trying to bring this outbreak under control, had determined the outbreak began seven months earlier and was four times deadlier than the hospital knew – until they brought in the experts.
We obviously jumped on the story – but within 24 hours, we learned that the Ontario government would do no further investigation or take any further action. It had been handled, they said.
I can remember standing in the newsroom when we received that news and there was a stunned silence – then someone asked: What if these had been babies? Would they have done an investigation then?
And that was where we began.
These were elderly people who entered the hospital in perfectly good health to have simple things like hip replacements done and they ended up dead.
And the part that puzzled us was that the Ontario government had had almost two and half years of warning from the province of Quebec, where this specific bacterium, in an epidemic form, had ravaged hospitals there and killed more than 2000 people.
So Ontario had had plenty of warning to set up a system, track the bug’s path and help intensify efforts to prevent deaths.
So how could this happen?
In developments that will be very familiar to every journalist in this room including lots of others as well, we found no accountability, no responsibility and a totally dismissive attitude by the province, the hospital, and the whole public health system. Everywhere we went, patients were told repeatedly there was no problem with infection control.
But there was.
Ontario’s vaunted health protection system – which was supposed to have been fixed after SARS – was broken. In fact, the deaths at Joseph Brant Hospital were only a small share of what we discovered was a rampaging problem at other Ontario hospitals – especially small ones.
Over eight months, in more than 100 stories and in a five-part series, the Hamilton Spectator exposed the system’s cracks. We ultimately accounted for more than 450 deaths of elderly patients at just 22 of Ontario’s 158 hospitals. It was the only death and infection count ever done.
Two weeks into our coverage, it was announced that public reporting of C. difficile would become mandatory. A package of new patient safety initiatives followed and was later strengthened to include infection swat teams for hospitals, and new funding for infection control. This year, Ontario will finally begin doing what almost every other jurisdiction in the world does with hospital infection deaths – they’ll start to count them.
This story, though, was about people, the dozens of families who bravely made public incredibly intimate, humiliating details of their loved ones deaths. There were two in particular who stood out for us which we wrote about at length – the daughter of 90-year-old Ellen Walker, for example, who actually day-by-day watched her mother spiral into a horrific death, punctuated by the relentless bouts of savage diarrhea that afflicted just about everyone who died. Or the family of an 80-year-old man named Whitey Allen, who entered hospital perfectly hale and hearty for a routine hip replacement, caught the bug and died in 20 days. His children thought he died of a stroke, until the hospital told them two years later that C. difficile was at play.
These shocked surviving extended families, husbands and wives, the daughters and sons – they trusted us to do what they believe we are supposed to do. They told us their stories expecting we would help prevent others from confronting the heartbreak they faced.
We must always keep their faith. Especially when times are hard in our industry, as they are today. We must maintain our role as watchdogs, as our readers and viewers expect we should.
They are right. One of journalism’s most sacred public duties is to shine a light on things that should be known and must be changed.
We must never breach that trust.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 10, 2009