To Know Sheryl Glatt and Kidney Disease

I didn’t know Sheryl when she wasn’t sick.

I didn’t know her as a preschool teacher, a mother, a churchgoer or dialysis support group leader. Every time I saw her, she was in a hospital bed, tethered to a dialysis machine or in a wheelchair en route to a doctor’s appointment.

She had lost one leg to amputation, was in danger or losing the other and suffered from advanced kidney disease.

Interviewing and photographing Sheryl Glatt was part of a bigger story the Center produced on dialysis policySenior writer John Gonzales was the lead reporter and I produced a multimedia slideshow and photographs. We approached the story as we do many of the health policy issues we cover. We called potential interview subjects. We researched: We reported.

Sheryl Glatt needed a new pancreas, a new kidney and a new foot. She underwent 16 procedures on her left foot, the last an amputation. Then, she underwent four procedures on her right foot. She died of complications on December 18 at age 51.

"I can walk, and I can talk, and you know I have my sense about me," Glatt told me from her hospital bed back in June. "I have a house and food in the house and good kids and great family. There are people that are far worse off than me. When you think about it that way, it’s not difficult at all."

The woman with manicured nails, bone-thin legs and a seemingly perpetual smile stole my heart. I believed her hope would save her. Despite the staples in her leg, bruises on her arm and open wounds on her foot, she never seemed mortal. I imagined that transplants and a return to “normal life” were just around the bend.

I underestimated her fragility.

As my colleague John Gonzales reported, dialysis patients of Glatt’s age and race have a life expectancy of just under six years. Glatt’s own father died at the age of 47 after undergoing dialysis treatments at home. And, yet, in Sheryl’s presence, I forgot this.

What’s the lesson here? Our particular corner of the reporting world – health and health care policy – is often a grim one. We report on situations with the highest stakes: a dying child, a paralyzed spouse, a woman whose smile and spirit couldn’t, in the end, save her. And this can take its toll, even on a journalist who has seen it before and who will probably see it again.

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Lauren M. Whaley

Multimedia journalist Lauren M. Whaley is the president of the national Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS). For the Center and its partners, she produces videos, radio stories, photographs and other multimedia and written pieces. She covers topics such as childbirth policies, mental illness and dialysis and diabetes and helps her colleagues promote their work. Her Center work has won honors from the Scripps Howard Awards and the Association of Health Care Journalists She has contributed stories to Southern California Public Radio, KQED Public Radio, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Modesto Bee, among others. While living in Wyoming, she worked as a newspaper reporter, blog editor and freelance magazine writer. She earned her master's degree in specialized science journalism from the University of Southern California, her bachelor's from Bowdoin College and spent summers in her early 20s taking high school girls on Arctic canoe expeditions. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.  

© 2014 California Healthcare Foundation Center for Health Reporting