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One person more memorable than a million’?
When readers opened their New York Times Sunday magazine on May 30, they found a big, heart-tugging article about a young Thai refugee undergoing treatment for multidrug-resistant TB at National Jewish Hospital in Denver.
The patient whose ordeal was recounted, a 19-year-old who’d probably contracted a highly resistant form of TB from his father (who, in turn, likely had experienced erratic treatment in his homeland), endured a lobectomy, a pneumectomy, and finally a thoracoplasty, all the while enduring the harsh side effects of second- and third-line drugs.
Lisa Belkin, the New York Times Magazine contributing editor who frequently writes about health care issues, says she found researching the piece distressing and alarming. "I’d written a lot about the 1991 TB outbreak in New York City, so some of what I learned didn’t take me by surprise," says Belkin. "But to find that we’re actually moving backwards in time and that doctors are having to resort to surgery again to try to cure their patients — that just blew me away."
The inspiration for the piece was a phone call; in this case, from a friend who’d heard about an engaging young patient at National Jewish. "[The patient] said he wanted to tell his story," says Belkin. "Sometimes all you have to do is ask."
What she liked best about doing the story was the chance it gave her to make TB real for her readers, she says. "I liked the opportunity this gave to put a face on TB."
"I don’t know if it’s American society in particular or human nature in general, but we only tend to absorb information we can put a face on. If you say millions,’ those millions aren’t me. But you meet one person, and that person could be you."
Some of the TB experts Belkin spoke with worried that her blunt descriptions of the side effects of second- and third-line drugs might frighten patients out of compliance. Others worried that her writing about TB among the foreign-born might provoke anti-immigrant sentiments.
"But these drugs really can be brutal," she says, referring to the first objection. "And it’s like one physician I talked to put it: We can’t close down our borders even if we wanted to, so we’d better get on with it and do something about global TB.’"