Trusting News: Watching a paramedic revive an overdose victim
By Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health
Susquehanna Township EMS Captain Dan Tempel and EMT Chris Wright speak with a person who is being transported to the hospital for breathing difficulties. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)
While working on a story about the financial costs of the opioid crisis, I spent an evening with Susquehanna Township EMS in Dauphin County. I thought the EMTs’ experiences would help tell the story, and station director Matt Baily was eager to accommodate me. I signed paperwork, got a safety briefing and donned a fluorescent jacket that labeled me as an EMS observer.
About four hours into the shift, the radio dispatcher requested an ambulance for a man who overdosed on heroin in his vehicle in Harrisburg. I rode with paramedic Dan Tempel as we raced across town.
I knew the statistics. I knew that overdose deaths had increased year after year in Pennsylvania. Still, I didn’t expect to come face to face with the reality behind the numbers. Over the next 40 minutes, Tempel’s crew, along with police and fire fighters, saved the man’s life and took him to the hospital. I did my best to stay out of the way while positioning myself to capture the scene on my audio recorder.
Back at the studio, I listened to the recording and realized I’d captured something that told the story of the opioid crisis in an immediate, urgent way. However, I’d have to put my editing skills to work to turn 40 minutes of sound into a coherent and responsible story.
For example, the EMS crew knew I was recording, but police and fire fighters coming onto the scene didn’t. Legally, I can use anything in a public place, but what is legal is merely the low bar for considering what is the most responsible and fair way to tell a story.
In this, two concepts are weighed against each other. On one hand, I ask whether a fact is significant to the story. On the other hand, I weigh the likelihood that airing it could harm someone. Of course, people such as elected officials understand that whatever they say in public could make it into the news. But these weren’t elected officials, and some of them may not have immediately known they were being recorded for a news story.
I also had an unusual piece of tape: An interview with the drug user. The man consented to talk to me, and he seemed to be of sound mind, but what did I know about the mental state of someone who had just been dosed with naloxone? As he lay in an ambulance, flanked by a paramedic and a police officer, was his consent valid?
I shared some of my recording with WITF news director Tim Lambert, and we worked to come up with the best way to tell the story. How do we convey the immediacy of emergency workers saving a man’s life? Lambert suggested a technique that would allow the sound I gathered to tell the story without any narration from me. An audio-only story would bring listeners to the scene and keep them there.
Throughout edits, I kept grounding myself with a simple question: What is this story about? “Area man revived from drug overdose” is so commonplace, it doesn’t even make the news. But this was different. This didn’t have value as news, but rather as the experience of watching an overdose victim saved from death. This sound represented the reality behind all those numbers. This happened, and it happened in our community. This is what first responders deal with every day. This is what it’s like to be on heroin. That was it. That was the story.
Susquehanna Township EMS Director Matt Baily removes naloxone from a drawer in his office. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)
Still, the story needed a voice. Listeners would hear people and sounds from the scene, but it needed a narrator to guide them. That voice, we decided, would be Dan Tempel, the paramedic who saved the man’s life. After the incident, we watched dashcam footage of the crew reviving the overdose victim as Tempel described what happened. My recording of Tempel’s play-by-play account allowed me to use his voice to describe what his team did and what was going through his mind.
I also had to decide whether to use the interview with the drug user, and whether to use his name. I knew the interview contained important details for my story. In many ways, he embodied what I’d been reporting about those who die from overdoses. Like 80 percent of heroin users in recent years, he got started on prescription opioids. Like many who overdose, he had been clean for several years before a relapse. He also revealed a troubling detail: He had just overdosed the previous day. This was his second trip to the emergency room in two days.
Lambert and I decided to use the interview, but not to use his name. His name wasn’t needed to understand what happened. To be sure, the act of using a name is in part a safeguard against fabricated reporting or fallacious statements. But that wasn’t an issue here. There was no doubt this man just had a drug overdose.
I was also careful in what audio I used of conversations because their potential to pose problems outweighed their significance to the story. For example, the details of how police collect information from people at a potential crime scene is interesting to some people, but it wasn’t relevant to my story.
Considering that more than 5,000 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses last year, focusing on one person who didn’t die of a drug overdose may not seem very important. But numbers aren’t the only way to tell a story. My hope is that by bringing listeners to the scene, they would be able to feel some of what people are experiencing, to give meaning to those numbers.
My second hope, just as important, is that I went about my effort in a way that left those in the story feeling that I practiced responsible journalism.
Susquehanna Township EMS Captain Dan Tempel collects information from a man who he just revived from a drug overdose. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)