There's no telling how many lives could have been saved. There's no telling how many families could have been spared the agony of false hope for a loved one. There's no final reckoning of how many millions of dollars patients and their insurance companies have spent in donor transplant programs, preparing in vain for the heart, liver or lung transplant that would never come.
But thanks at least in part to three enterprising reporters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer - all of them members of TNG-CWA Local 1 - federal regulations governing organ distribution are changing, so that the sickest patients receive transplants first, and health care providers that have been running fruitless transplant programs are under the closest scrutiny ever.
"People are dying unnecessarily, not because they don't have health insurance, not because they don't have access to care, but specifically because of where they happen to live," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala on March 26, announcing a new policy on organ transplants. Among supporting documents listed in the federal regulation: "a series of investigative articles on organ transplantation and allocation issues that appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in early 1997."
Plain Dealer reporters Ted Wendling, Joan Mazzolini and Dave Davis, on April 21, were recognized for their series, "Transplanting Life: The Triumphs, The Traps, The Tragedies," at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., receiving The Newspaper Guild's 1997 Heywood Broun Award, to the applause of both media colleagues and CWA activists.
"Journalism has never been an easy profession for those who do it right," said CWA President Morton Bahr, eschewing the competitive pressure on reporters, editors and news directors to merely entertain rather than deal seriously with issues. "We are especially honored this afternoon to recognize those whose professionalism and skill meet the highest standards."
TNG-CWA President Linda Foley pointed out that the prize, named for the Guild's founding president and crusader for social justice, has been increased from $2,000 to $5,000 to become the "equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. This year, it is particularly gratifying that we can award it to our own members."
She noted that the winners were selected by independent judges from among such impressive entries as investigative reports on an AIDS medication crisis, mistreatment of the mentally ill and workers' compensation fraud.
Said Mazzolini, who spoke for herself and two colleagues, "We are especially honored to receive the Broun Award because we believe it stands for the very ideals that brought us into journalism, the ideals that keep us going: that news organizations should give voice to those who cannot be heard, those who have fallen through the cracks, and that our work, in some small way, should promote the dignity of ordinary people who find themselves struggling in difficult times."
The Local 1 team of reporters worked 18 months to develop their series, which ran in five installments in the Plain Dealer in February 1997. They used computer-assisted and traditional research methods, analyzed nearly 56,000 records and 600 transplant programs. Their work revealed broad disparities in how long people wait for transplants across the country, which hospitals have the best and worst success records and how many organs are rejected "for non-medical reasons" because a surgeon is unavailable.
"Loetta DeWalt told us that she was glad her husband, Teddy, died in February 1994," Mazzolini related. "Teddy DeWalt, a Kansas City firefighter, endured months of poking and prodding with the hope of getting a new heart, a second chance at life. Loetta never left his bedside."
But no one bothered to tell the DeWalts that a political struggle within the University of Kansas Medical Center had already shut down the heart transplant program - that the surgeons were turning away all of the donor hearts matched to the hospital's 38 waiting patients. Loetta found out about what had happened to her husband by reading it in the local newspaper.
When DeWalt's enlarged heart began to fail, doctors at the University told him he'd have to continue his wait on life support.
"At the last minute, he changed his mind," Loetta recalled. "That's probably just as well, since he was at a place where they weren't even doing transplants."
Mazzolini, Wendling and Davis pursued their story with the full support of Plain Dealer management, who staved off threats of lawsuits to protect their work.
The new federal regulation imposes numerous mandates on the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing. They include standardization of the criteria that determines when patients are put on a waiting list, a transition plan to ensure that patients already on regional waiting lists are not placed at a disadvantage, and broad dissemination of survival rates, costs and waiting times so that patients can make an informed choice when selecting transplant centers.
Shalala said the regulation would go into effect in 90 days, following a period for public comment. UNOS was given 150 days to implement a new policy for livers and one year to revamp its entire program.
The Broun Award has been presented by The Newspaper Guild annually since 1941. This year's judges were Sharon Schminckle, assistant chief of the Washington bureau of the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Don Barlett of Time-Warner, who won the Broun in 1973 and 1991, Leonard Sloane, retired New York Times financial columnist, and Murray Seeger, retired reporter and editor, now with the Nieman Foundation.