The team that covered Mountain Medicine 2017 included (front, from left): Naomi Thomas, Kristina Griffith, Victoria Knight, Professor Patricia Thomas, Saleen Martin, Melissa Campbell, Elspeth Male; (back, from left): Abraham Park, James Lichtenwalter and GHN Editor Andy Miller.

Health and Medical Journalism students shine light on Mountain Medicine

While today’s technology has improved the ability for journalists to conduct interviews by phone or email, there are many stories that cannot be told without a one-on-one interview.

For this reason, Pat Thomas, the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, assigned her eight students to participate in the second annual rural health reporting project, venturing to northwest Georgia near Rome and Dalton, Georgia. The goal of the five-day trip was to tell stories that wouldn’t ordinarily be written because there are not enough reporters in rural Georgia areas to cover them.

“The reason experience is so important,” said Thomas, “is in real life, journalists have to go places that they don’t know much about. You can do some research in advance, but part of it you have to learn on the ground. Often you have a topic when you go, but you don’t really know what your story is…you don’t know your narrative or the characters. That you have to discover in the field.”

The series of features written by the HMJ graduate students, can be read through Georgia Health News.

Flexibility is key and a valuable lesson for the students.

Student Saleen Martin kept reminding herself of the question she set out to answer: “What happens when a state hospital closes?” Mental illness is a subject she has always been passionate about, and writing about what happened to the patients once the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital closed became a personal mission. It took her in several different directions, however.

“The biggest lesson I learned is that sometimes things won’t work out the way you expected them to,” Martin said. “Part of being a journalist is adapting…looking at the information you’ve gathered and figuring out what you can and can’t use.”

Martin also said that having the opportunity to talk one-on-one with her subjects made all the difference in the world, especially for one of her subjects, Delores Nowell.

“I am so appreciative for her willingness to speak to me, especially about such a sensitive topic,” Martin said. “Those things are hard enough to do, and it’s just not the same over the phone or via email.”

Establishing the confidence and trust in a building relationship between a journalist and her subject is vital.

“If I hadn’t been sitting directly across from her, I wouldn’t have been able to see or capture her eye movements as she peers at the floor, reliving her experiences as she roamed the streets of Atlanta, or when she was first taken to Northwest (General Regional Hospital.) I wouldn’t have been able to shake her hand or smile, letting her know that it’s safe to talk to us.”

For the second year in a row, the features the students wrote will be published in Georgia Health News. This year’s series, “Mountain Medicine 2017: Health in Northwest Georgia,” includes the following features written by the graduate students:

A little-known star of hospital safety in Georgia, by Andy Miller (Georgia Health News editor)

A place that pulls addicts back from the brink, by Kristina Griffith

For immigrant workers, corporate health plans can be an awkward fit, by Jim Lichtenwalter

High school students learn to eat better — and feed others better, by Melissa Campbell

Meals on Wheels: Volunteers deliver food as they fret about funding, by Elspeth Male

Not just a school clinic, but a clinic that’s at a school, by Abraham Park

Old attitudes still cast shadow over fight against HIV, by Victoria Knight

Re-entry program brings former nurses back into the profession, by Naomi Thomas

Years after hospital closed, some former patients struggle for safe housing, by Saleen Martin

Other features will be posted in upcoming weeks.

Georgia Health News editor and CEO Andy Miller, who traveled with the group and Thomas, said the program is invaluable to his publication.

“What Georiga Health News gets is original, well-reported, interesting stories on topics we wouldn’t cover otherwise,” Miller said. “I’ve been constantly impressed by the UGA students’ work.”

The experiential learning trip was funded by a grant from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation and the Institute of International Education, with travel support made possible by the Ford Foundation.

Date: May 17, 2017
Author:  Sarah Freeman,