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A Public Death: Bill Paxton’s surgery-related death should raise tough questions

A Public Death: Bill Paxton’s surgery-related death should raise tough questions

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.]

I got the news via text message from a friend.

“Are you kidding me? Pretty much liked everything he was in. A Simple Plan? One False Move? So great! Of course, Terminator, Apollo 13, Aliens, and Stripes!”

I had to admit that I did not know that Bill Paxton had been in “Stripes.” But, there he was in a photo texted moments later as proof. And even without his uncredited appearance in that comic masterpiece, Paxton’s death at 61 from complications related to surgery seemed a completely raw deal for film lovers, and yet another prompt for reporters to take note in three areas.

1. Remind your audiences that all surgeries come with risks. I write about this with some frequency in my role as a reviewer for HealthNewsReview.org, and it is one of the areas where reporters miss the mark most frequently. In touting something as “minimally invasive” or writing about a new technique that has only been tried in a handful of patients, reporters fail to describe the risks associated with all interventions. That includes medicines, devices, screening technologies, and, of course, surgeries. Many of us have gone under the knife at some point or another, and so we may be nonchalant about our own risk. We didn’t have a nerve accidentally severed, a blood vessel accidentally punctured, or a vital organ damaged in some way. And so those very real risks — not to mention the risks associated with acquiring a drug-resistant infection while in surgery or in recovery with a weakened immune system — can be underappreciated and underrepresented in a story in favor of focusing on the new, the now, the seemingly newsworthy.

2. Get a second opinion for your audience. All we know about Paxton for now is that he had a heart condition for which surgery was recommended. It’s always hard to second-guess someone’s personal health decision. What would be amazing, though, in situations like this is if reporters took the opportunity to assemble whatever known facts there are and to ask some of the same expert sources they use every day for their second opinion. What if their husband, father, or best friend were Bill Paxton? Would they recommend this surgery? Or was there another therapy available? People emulate celebrities. They follow their diets. They take their relationship advice. They take the pills that celebrities recommend. If Paxton was simply one of the unlucky few who died from an otherwise safe surgery, then that’s worth reporting. But if he was one of the unlucky many who died because he was taking a medication that went unnoticed and later caused surgical complications, or because he caught an infection during or after the surgery, or because something went wrong during the surgery itself, then that’s worth reporting.

3. Push for details and ask for records. Antidote loyalists will have read my post on Andy Rooney, whose death remains a mystery. Reporters did Paxton more of a service than many of them did with Rooney, because more reporters actually stated up front that the death was linked to medical care. In NBC’s story by Phil McCausland, for example, the headline stated it clearly: “Actor Bill Paxton Dead at 61 Due to Complications from Surgery.”

We still don’t know much about Paxton’s death. Details may emerge, depending on the rules governing death certificates and autopsies in the location where he died. But access to those records is threatened. What used to be routinely available to reporters is now put beyond reach. And I put part of the blame on reporters themselves because so few are asking for these types of records anymore. If agencies don’t regularly get requests for access to death records, coroner’s reports and the like, officials start to think it is unusual to release those records. And state legislatures and other governing bodies start to take even more significant action to restrict access to those records. I salute Martha Ross at the San Jose Mercury News for posting a piece the night of Paxton’s death that explored how his heart surgery may have been linked to the rheumatic fever he had as a child. (And credit goes to Marc Maron, too, who interviewed Paxton for his podcast and talked about the childhood illness.) Ross wrote:

The Mayo Clinic said rheumatic fever is rare these days in the United States and other developed countries. The heart damage it causes usually doesn’t show up for years, but it’s something people need to share with their doctors for the rest of their lives as part of their medical histories. They should also get regular heart exams, the Mayo Clinic said.

The friend of mine who texted me about Paxton’s death loved “A Simple Plan" and "Frailty," Paxton's first film as a director. But Bill Paxton was beloved to me before that because he starred in and directed the “Fish Heads” video by the Barnes & Barnes, a video I probably watched more than 100 times as a kid. It was part of Paxton’s “new wave past,” as one article recently put it. In an interview referenced in that same article, Paxton showed what a cinephile he was by referring to himself as Rupert Pupkin, the talent-challenged comedian played by Robert De Niro in one of Martin Scorsese’s best but lesser-known films, “The King of Comedy.”

Unlike Pupkin, Paxton will be remembered and will continue to be revered. We should honor his death by asking more questions about it, and by being more transparent with our audiences about the risks of surgery.

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Read other posts in the Antidote series "A Public Death" here.

Comments

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Great advice from a seasoned journalist.

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I had open heart surgery,May 23rd, 2016. I was on a 3 T heating /cooling machine for nine hours during my surgery. My entire system shut down, I had a stroke and pneumonia during the same period of time. They put me in induced coma for nine hours, then , Three weeks in a 24hour watch, finally seven weeks in rehab. That being said, I received a letter ( March 27th, 2017 ) from the hospital, informing me I have good chance of having an airborne bacteria,introduce through open surgical opening in my chest. Recommended use of machine, maximum, 3hrs,
I was on it, 9hrs, good chance I have contracted super bug, no cure.
I am very upset, with the fact that hospitals are aware of the risk of contamination. I would have preferred to take my chances with natures way to take me when ready. The death related to Mycobacterial Chimaera, is a slow painful way to go. not to mention the expense for my family. My wife and I are in our seventies and are living in fear of the worst. Does anyone know who I can talk to. I have done a lot of research and all inconclusive.
I just read about Bill Paxton, we had the exact surgery. Cause of death, stroke, not sure that is accurate.

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