My long search for the source who made the story

Published on
February 10, 2015

Even when I applied to be a California Health Journalism fellow, I knew that one story in my series would be harder than the rest. I was right.

Though I’d done a lot of reporting for public radio on issues of community health such as housing and the impact of heat stress on farm workers, for this project I decided to focus on the Affordable Care Act. Even though millions of Californians would gain health coverage, I wanted to hear from people who would still be left out, as well as the safety-net systems still serving them.

One story was incredibly easy to report, and that’s solely because of this fellowship. A large percentage of Californians who remain uninsured are undocumented immigrants. During our fellowship week at USC, I befriended a fellow who lives in Sonoma County, who knew of a community advocacy organization and day-labor center that did activism and education on immigration and health care. She connected me with those folks, and I was able to convey a compelling story.

Another story presented some hiccups, despite what I thought were my thorough preparations. The person who had enthusiastically agreed to be my guide through a network of Southern California community clinics actually didn’t alert clinic staff to my visit, and even his interview was less than dynamic. Even that reporting wasn’t too hard to salvage; like all health reporters have done countless times, I just hung around the clinics until I found interesting people willing to share their stories. Later, I visited a Central Valley safety-net hospital where I had contacts, which really filled out the piece.

But I was nervous about my final piece from the start. The story would feature someone who fell into the large group of “other” remaining uninsured. These are people who hadn’t enrolled because of language barriers, troubles with enrollment, or lack of awareness, or were able to enroll but still found the coverage unaffordable even with subsidies, or who fell into the “family glitch.” Unlike undocumented people, though, those who fell into this category aren’t unified by a particular status or circumstance. They don’t necessarily have advocates or community organizations bringing them together. They are people doing without, and finding one who could exemplify this large group of Californians without insurance proved even more difficult than I’d imagined.

I started meeting with editors and reporters at KQED in January, before I came to USC, to talk about my story’s direction, and got advice from the health blogger there about health care professionals I might consult. I contacted numerous enrollment counselors, ones who focused on poor neighborhoods and ones who targeted Spanish-speaking communities, but lead after lead fell through. I used social media and got KQED to do so as well to see if we could find someone who was a documented citizen but still didn’t have insurance. None who responded were the right fit. I interviewed a staff member at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which studies the issue, but even she wondered how to find a person who exemplified what she knew, from her research, was a prevalent situation. I contacted the sources she directed me to, but the leads there dried up as well.

Feeling a little desperate, I just started calling and emailing greater Bay Area clinics that served low-income populations. All but one didn’t return my phone calls or respond to my emails. The one that did, though, was a gold mine. The Ravenswood Family Health Clinic in East Palo Alto, which serves a low-income population, has a great reputation and a website that shows it knows how to communicate its values through the stories of its clients. And they have a community-relations manager. She turned out to be a fan of public radio, and understood that having a story about the remaining uninsured on The California Report would further the mission of her organization. She asked her colleagues if they knew of anyone who had come who fit the profile I was looking for. There were a few false starts but eventually they got permission from one person, Leaburn Alexander, to let me contact him.

Alexander was so busy with multiple jobs and several-hour commutes that we did most of our communicating by text. He seemed open to telling me his story, why he had to work so much, and why health care was low on his list of priorities.

For our interview, I decided to meet Alexander at 6 a.m., at the end of his overnight shift and the beginning of his three-hour commute home on public transportation. I did this for two reasons: first, he had next to no downtime in his whole week, and he used that one morning a week to go grocery shopping or catch up on sleep. Also, my medium is radio, which needs a lot of audio-rich scenes to tell a story, and I thought that taking listeners along with me on Alexander’s commute might communicate his life’s daily realities.

Alexander really opened up, discussing his past addictions and incarceration, his financial problems and realities, his own and his children’s health, and his commitment to Christianity. In fact, it was his religious beliefs that compelled him to talk with me. He said that by sharing his story with a wide audience, he felt like he was giving testimony.

In the end, after months of looking for a good source, I found an amazing person whose story is not unique but is rarely heard on public radio.

Photo credit: Lisa Morehouse