Gerber: When news and life intersect

Gerber: When news and life intersect

June 29th, 2014 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

The words flickered across my phone: "Man in Arkansas."

Then, a few seconds later, another word appeared.

"Suicide."

I stared at the screen.

For months, I'd thought daily about this person and who he was, about how he lived, what he was like and, especially, how he died.

This man's death had allowed my husband to live.

My husband was born with a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart muscle to thicken. When he was in his early 20s, surgeons at Emory University Hospital sliced back a portion of his heart's septum, the muscular "wall" that runs between the two sides of the heart, which had grown thick and was slowing blood flow.

Another 20 years went by before his heart started weakening. By the fall of 2012, his heart disease had progressed to the condition cardiologists called "end stage."

The heart transplant that saved his life that November took more than 12 hours. The surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital told me afterward that it was a difficult, complicated surgery that involved a spectacular amount of blood loss. A second surgeon said later that the operation was so wearing, he took over for a while so the primary surgeon could take a nap.

Yet a month and a half later, my husband was home for Christmas with me and our daughter.

It wasn't until the following fall that I got the text message.

I was surprised to find out that the heart he received came from a 51-year-old man who had ended his own life. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so shocked. This year's state report on suicide is alarming. Suicide deaths are now as common as car crash fatalities, and middle-aged men are turning to suicide at a terrifying rate.

Yet many don't realize how common suicide is; how often people choose death. And families are ill prepared to handle a suicidal person or a suicide. Many don't know about the resources available to help.

Newspapers typically don't cover suicides. We write about homicides and traffic fatalities and other tragic deaths, but suicides always have been considered private matters. There is also a fear that stories about suicides will cause more suicides. Psychologists call it "clustering."

Still, as journalists we can't ignore that suicide is a growing problem and a public health crisis. It's something we should talk about as a community.

A three-day series of reports that starts today and concludes Tuesday explores suicide and why middle-aged men, like the one whose heart my husband received, are so at risk for taking their own lives.

In a story published today on the front page, Projects Editor Joan Garrett McClane tells the story of one man's suicide and the impact it had on his family in the years afterward. On Monday, she writes about the toll suicide is taking on middle-aged men. On Tuesday, she writes about a solution to the suicide epidemic.

All three stories plus a list of resources and letters from families who have lost loved ones will be available online at timesfreepress.com/suicide.

We know only three things about the man whose heart my husband received: He was 51, from Arkansas and died by suicide.

We will forever be grateful to this man and will always think of him and his family and hope that they have found some peace. I think frequently about how an event that brought so much relief and happiness to my family must have caused such agony to another.

My husband wrote a letter to that family and mailed it to the Alabama Organ Center, which will forward it to them. It says, in part:

"It can't be easy for you, but please know that by helping me continue my life, you have brought immeasurable joy to my family, most of all an 8-year-old girl who loves her daddy very much.

The other day I asked her what her favorite holiday was, expecting her to say Christmas or Thanksgiving or July 4. She looked at me and smiled and said, 'The day that man gave you a heart.'"

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Contact her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.