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A deep dive on Alzheimer’s disproportionate impact on Black Angelenos proves daunting — and deeply rewarding

A deep dive on Alzheimer’s disproportionate impact on Black Angelenos proves daunting — and deeply rewarding

Picture of Darlene Donloe
Photo via Darlene Donloe/Wave Newspapers
(Photo via Darlene Donloe/Wave Newspapers)

The subject of my 2021 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship is “The Frequency of Alzheimer’s on the Black Community in Los Angeles.”

I chose that subject because I wanted to know why being Black puts certain people at a higher risk. My research focused on how and why this silent epidemic is more prevalent among Blacks than among whites and other ethnic groups.

I settled on Alzheimer’s in the Black community for several reasons. I wanted to give the Black community in Los Angeles all the information they would need to be proactive about their health when it comes to Alzheimer’s. No one was talking about it.

I also wanted to write about Alzheimer’s because of my encounters with people suffering from the disease including Bev Smith, the model, lifestyle guru, and restaurateur whom I met at her book signing.

After the signing, I told her how much of a warrior I thought she was.

During her talk, with her husband by her side, Smith spoke of her good days and bad days, and how her memory goes in and out. Her husband spoke of his struggles with a wife he was slowly losing.

It was heartbreaking.

After a brief discussion, Smith looked at me and asked, “Am I supposed to know you? Do I know you?” 

I told her we had never met. A few minutes later, she repeated the questions. She was beginning to go in and out. That, too, was heartbreaking. It happened several years ago and she has since passed away, but the moment has stayed with me.

Alzheimer’s has proven itself a worthy opponent against science and research.

One of the most vicious diseases ever, Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

Today, there are nearly 6 million Americans with the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Assn., a number expected to nearly triple by 2050. 

The biggest disappointment in my research on the subject was to realize even with its decades of research, the medical community has no idea why Black people get Alzheimer’s at a higher rate. They have ideas, but nothing concrete. It was and still is, very frustrating.

THE CALL

When I received a call from USC Annenberg about participating in its upcoming 2021 California Fellowship, my initial thought was “no.”

I anticipated it would be a lot of work. To my surprise, it was more than I anticipated. Much more. Making time for the fellowship was a job unto itself.

If you are working full-time, freelancing, or working part-time, it is still a time-consuming enterprise – one that you can’t take lightly if you’re going to be successful. There is so much to consider.

In the midst of the Fellowship, remember that life continues to happen. Understand your commitment. You have to make time for the fellowship while continuing to do your job.

Time seems to go at warp speed and deadlines seem to come in a flurry.

I had grandiose ideas of what my project would be. Doctors would use my project as the standard by which all research on the subject would be done. I would become the foremost authority on the subject of Alzheimer’s in the Black community and would unearth some little-known fact or breakthrough. I’m being facetious, but I did have high hopes. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. As my research began, I found the same information everywhere. I excavated and still came up empty. I implored doctors to share insider information, but there was nothing. It was sobering to realize I fell short of my own expectations. The lack of new information was messing with my desire to give the Black community everything I thought it should know about Alzheimer’s.

My mentor, Catherine Stifter, reminded me that just because I knew the information didn’t mean that the Black community had the same information. She reminded me to just give them accurate information. They may not know anything about the subject matter.

ADVICE

The advice I would give to anyone considering a journalism fellowship includes the following:

  • Set up a schedule for yourself. Include days/times for writing, interviewing, and researching.

  • Decide what you want readers to know.

  • What is the story you want to tell? Who will it benefit? Sit with it for a while.

  • Set up interviews, early. Confirm the day before.

  • Research and then research some more.

  • Decide whom you need to interview to make your story work.

  • Pin down sources.

  • Make phone calls early.

  • Identify experts early.

  • To make your life easier, meet your deadlines. Make realistic deadlines. Give yourself markers to stay on schedule.

  • If you’re writing for a print outlet, be sure to confer with your editor about the amount of designated space you’ll be given.

  • Make a schedule about the various fellowship meetings. Take advantage of this time — it’s incredibly helpful and priceless!

While six months seems like a long time to research and write your project, it isn’t. The adage, time flies, is true.

The most important advice I would give is to ask your experts what questions you should be asking. Ask them who else you should talk to. This can be extremely helpful. I found it invaluable.

Now that I’ve had time to take a breath and reflect, I realize I did the best I could. I was very hard on myself throughout the process. Give yourself a break.

WRITING

I don’t have enough time to write the stories I’m responsible for on a daily basis, so why did I think I could pull off writing additional stories? I cursed myself several times throughout the fellowship. What was I thinking? What was I doing? 

My editor had given me 1,200 words per story, which is a decent amount of space. 

One of the hardest things to do whether you’re doing a fellowship or not – is to write about something and have your editor leave the possible Pulitzer Prize-winning pieces on the cutting room floor. Oh, the humanity! I did manage to maneuver more space, but it wasn’t easy.

I was filled with angst, doubt, panic and anxiety during the entire Fellowship process.

In the end, I’m ecstatic that I participated. I gained invaluable information from my peers, mentor, and numerous journalists and editors in the first weeks of the fellowship. The cohort meetings with my group were invaluable. I received advice, encouragement, and the will to continue. If you get bogged down, talk it out with your group. If you are blessed like I was to have a stellar group of fellow journalists have your back, you’ve already won.

I challenged myself during a time when I was going through some very personal battles. Even at my age, it added to my growth and development.

Move out of your safe place. Let go of your comfort zone.

You can do this!

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