It’s been a busy 2018 here at STAT, reporting on the latest on “CRISPR babies,” drug pricing squabbles, IBM Watson, and the ongoing Ebola outbreak, just to name a few. But we, of course, still find the time to see what other journalists are writing — and get jealous we didn’t do it ourselves.
So as we take a little breather before 2019 ramps up, we present another year of the stories we wish we would have written.
Speaking of jealousy, we must admit we got the idea for this list from Bloomberg Businessweek — so head over there for more great reporting from the year that was.
Story of a Face: How a Transplanted Face Transformed Katie Stubblefield’s Life
By Joanna Connors, Photos by Lynn Johnson and Maggie Steber, National Geographic
At age 21, Katie Stubblefield was the youngest person in the United States to receive a face transplant. Photographers Lynn Johnson and Maggie Steber documented this process before, during, and after surgery. Steber photographed tender, quiet moments of Stubblefield and her family in the months leading up to surgery while Johnson captured the surreality of the operating room. This long-term project is a remarkable story spanning science, medicine, and personal narrative.
— Contributed by Alissa Ambrose
13 Suicide Attempts, 18 Hospitalizations, Few Options: Lost in Tennessee’s Mental Care System
By Jessica Bliss and Anita Wadhwani, The Tennessean
An assertion like “Tennessee is 46th among states in access to mental health care” doesn’t exactly rope you in, so The Tennessean brought that statistic to life. This fine-grained portrait of a young woman who has attempted suicide 13 times and been admitted to psychiatric hospitals 18 times for short-term care examines the human toll of a failed and failing system, in particular the revolving-door readmissions due to the lack of follow-up care when someone is discharged after a psychiatric hospitalization.
— Contributed by Sharon Begley
1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours
By Katharine Q. Seeyle, The New York Times
Given that so much has been written about the opioid crisis, the bar is high for journalism that truly captures how addiction has destroyed families across America. Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times surpassed that high bar. For nearly a year, Seelye and photographer Todd Heisler shadowed Patrick Griffin and his family in Pembroke, N.H., as he tried to stay alive despite his addiction to heroin and fentanyl. In one day alone, Patrick overdosed four times over six hours. Seelye and Heisler were there to witness so many horrible moments, including an intervention in Patrick’s mother’s living room captured by stunning photographs.
As Seelye put it, “Most drug users do not die. Far more, like Patrick, are snared for years in a consuming, grinding, unending cycle of addiction.”
— Contributed by Rick Berke
On a Bat’s Wing and a Prayer
By Lena Sun, The Washington Post
I was jealous from the get-go. When do you get to placeline an article Bat Cave?
Sun and photographer Bonnie Jo Mount travelled to western Uganda with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are trying to track the movements of a species of fruit bats — Rousettus aegyptiacus — that carry the Marburg virus. Marburg is a cousin of Ebola and as deadly, though Marburg outbreaks are less common, perhaps because the bats that are its source are cave dwellers.
The CDC scientists were catching male bats and kitting them up with tracking devices; Sun and Mount went along for the adventure. She takes you into caves pungent with the nostril-burning ammonia of bat guano, which colonies of tens of thousands of bats share with pythons and cobras.
Come to think of it, maybe it was better that it was Lena, not me.
— Contributed by Helen Branswell
These New Pharma Bros Are Wreaking Havoc on Prescription Drug Prices
By Jared Hopkins and Andrew Martin, Bloomberg
This story did as much as any other to demonstrate our country’s often absurd system of pricing drugs and the reasons lifesaving prescription medicines sometimes see list price increases as high as 4,116 percent. That was the case with a skin gel manufactured by Novum Pharma, Bloomberg revealed, after a pair of Chicago-based consultants swooped in to revamp the company’s pricing model. Such price hikes became a pattern.
Reporters Andrew Martin and Jared Hopkins retraced the consultants’ steps across the country, where they often left behind a trail of sky-high list prices, suspiciously low patient copays, and higher insurance premiums as a result. It’s not just the deeply reported business and policy insight in this piece that stands out. It’s the fact that two Chicago men were able to impact so many businesses and, more importantly, so many patients’ lives — and then simply walk away.
— Contributed by Lev Facher
The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul
By Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
You can’t be a health reporter on Capitol Hill without at some point hearing about the growing epidemic of youth e-cigarette youth. Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker article explains in illuminating — and sometimes horrifying — detail how one e-cigarette company, Juul, has become a part of youth subculture and what that means for the future of public health.
Tolentino’s ability to energetically explore the brains of teens is a feat in and of itself, but that isn’t the only reason why I wish I wrote this story: It also effortlessly explains the more benevolent reason why companies like Juul were created in the first place, and the difficult choices that now face federal regulators, who want to combat rising youth use of e-cigarettes while also encouraging the use of these products to wean smokers off combustible nicotine. The 8,000 words fly by, I promise.
— Contributed by Nicholas Florko
How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The New York Times Magazine
As a science reporter, I probably don’t pay as much attention to what wellness gurus are touting as I should — much of which is ripe for a rigorous gut check. I’m not the target audience, but none of that stuff has ever made sense to me as a consumer, either, with its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-evidence mumbo jumbo. Which explains why this behind-the-curtain look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has stuck with me for so long. First, it’s hilarious. Second, I have never related to a person more than when Brodesser-Akner describes being trapped in traffic on an airport bus while desperately needing to urinate. But most important — and definitely important for scientists and clinicians to absorb — the piece provides a glimpse at why people are willing to turn to someone like Paltrow (or Dr. Oz, or Andrew Wakefield, or …) for health advice as they turn away from mainstream medicine. The scientific community — including us science journalists — needs to figure this out. The only way to bring people back is to understand why they left in the first place.
— Contributed by Andrew Joseph
Patients’ Drug Options Under Medicaid Heavily Influenced By Drugmakers
By Liz Essley Whyte, Joe Yerardi, and Alison Kodjak, The Center for Public Integrity and NPR
Medicaid is notoriously hard to dig into, as health policy subject matter goes — every state’s program has different (and complicated) rules, different disclosure policies, different relationships with transparency. It’s a massive program (so much bigger than Medicare!) but the sheer intricacy of it stops so many reporters from digging in.
But, man, look what The Center for Public Integrity and NPR found when they did! This investigation looked at the way the pharmaceutical industry — infamous for its lobbying prowess in Washington — was doing to influence and, in some ways, outright buy votes on the key committees that decide which drugs get preferential treatment by state Medicaid programs. Their reporting yielded eyebrow-raising anecdotes and mind-boggling figures in state after state, again and again — it’s worth your time.
— Contributed by Erin Mershon
By Rebecca Moss, The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica
This maddening story chronicles the life and death of Chad Walde, a worker at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of the nation’s most important nuclear weapons labs. Walde died last year at age 44 of a brain cancer linked to radiation of the kind he was exposed to for years at his workplace. Before he died, Walde filed a claim for federal benefits — but the government denied responsibility, and Walde and his family were denied compensation. How did that happen? Through her meticulous reporting, Moss paints a damning portrait of Los Alamos as a place besieged with safety problems and shoddy record-keeping. The story is an important piece of accountability journalism — and you won’t soon forget the haunting, heartbreaking scene from Walde’s funeral.
— Contributed by Rebecca Robbins
Top Cancer Researcher Fails to Disclose Corporate Financial Ties in Major Research Journals
What These Medical Journals Don’t Reveal: Top Doctors’ Ties to Industry
By Charles Ornstein and Katie Thomas, ProPublica and The New York Times
Financial conflicts are seldom called out in medicine. And that stems from something even more insidious: the failure of researchers to fully disclose their financial relationships with pharmaceutical and health care companies when their work is published in medical journals. The New York Times and ProPublica did a masterful job of using publicly available data to spotlight inadequate disclosures by leading clinicians and researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Yale Medical School, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, among others. The reporting also exposed serious lapses by medical journals in vetting these disclosures. Many of the relationships could have been easily detected on a federal database, but no one was looking. They are looking now.
— Contributed by Casey Ross
CrossFit’s “Holy War”: The Rise And Fall Of Its Science Crusader
By Stephanie M. Lee, BuzzFeed News
Like so many news events this year, I saw the tweets about the tweets first. Stephanie M. Lee’s thorough profile of CrossFit’s spokesperson seemed to follow them impossibly quickly and is a wonderful example of how to profile a controversial figure.
Russell Berger’s comments — which, among other things, called celebrating LGBTQ pride a “sin” — weren’t directly related to the main chunk of the story about the hunt for data discrepancies in a study about CrossFit. But glossing over them would have been a huge omission, particularly because Berger was fired from his position as a result of them.
Instead, Lee used the controversial tweets and the fallout as a clear structure for her story; as she writes, with these tweets “[Berger] went from being CrossFit’s greatest defender to its most urgent threat.”
Lee’s reporting on industry funding in food and exercise science has been remarkable all year, as have her follow-ups on Brian Wansink and research from his Food and Brand Lab at Cornell. This story was no exception.
— Contributed by Kate Sheridan
The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care
By Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker
This gripping narrative lays out the emotional challenges inherent in caring for individuals who have dementia. The beautifully structured piece takes you inside the lives of patients and caregivers as they struggle with the existential question — what actually makes people happy? The story made me question the beliefs I held about how to treat people, and left me with plenty of things to think about.
— Contributed by Ike Swetlitz
It’s 4 A.M. The Baby’s Coming. But the Hospital Is 100 Miles Away.
By Jack Healy, The New York Times
This story grabs you right from the first sentence: “A few hours after the only hospital in town shut its doors forever, Kela Abernathy bolted awake at 4:30 a.m., screaming in pain.” Dozens of rural hospitals across the country have shuttered since 2010, and experts estimate that fewer than half of rural counties in the U.S. are home to a hospital that provides obstetric care. This story gives a compelling, critical look at what that means for pregnant women and newborns.
— Contributed by Megan Thielking