The Writer at Work – !@#$%!

This story, if that’s what it is, the one about treating asthma with home improvement instead of prescription meds, is driving me nuts. Excuse me while I rant.

Stories have shapes, and so far this one is a blob.

Here are the shapes of some good stories—

  • Threat and Response. Examples: all my work on West Nile virus marching across the continent toward the West Coast, and the coastal states’ preparation for it to arrive. The news in this kind of story is preparation, preventing harm, not the disease’s arrival. In fact, when the virus did land on the Pacific shore and nothing much happened, the story of West Nile was done.
    Stories about preparations for earthquake and other disasters fit this category, too.
  • The Exception versus the Rule. Examples: my stories about Portland rats.
  • Here’s Something New. Examples: my article for Metroscape about a new policy tool, Health Impact Assessment, and how it’s being used for various projects.
  • Ask a Different Question. Example: my article on how water fluoridation affects animals. It was a new angle on the fluoridation question. Didn’t open any minds, though.

So what’s wrong with this !@#$%! story? I’ve got the elevator pitch down.

The emerging discovery that it’s cheaper to treat asthma by fixing people’s homes than by giving them drugs.

The pitch works. People perk up. They want more.

But nothing has actually happened yet. The connection betweeen health and fixing indoor air is “emerging.” Smart people are connecting dots, building hypotheses, and finding other dot-connectors. If they’re right, they’ll save lives, raise the quality of lives, and save billions of dollars.

That’s not a story.

Asthma is a big deal. It’s one of the most common, most expensive health problems, one of the worst to have.

I REALLY, REALLY want to write a story about a new way to treat asthma that works great and saves money. But it’s not soup yet. If that damn hypothesis would finish emerging already, and succeed, I’d have a “Here’s Something New” story.

A few individual cases give me hope that there will be a story here:

  • I’ve interviewed one family with asthma that felt better within hours of a new ventilation system’s installation. The appliance paid for itself, by reducing medical costs, in eight months.
  • A Seattle public housing development built with great ventilation, open to families with asthmatic children, resulted in healthier kids. Their school attendance improved, they didn’t go to the emergency room so often, didn’t need to stay in the hospital so frequently. Medicaid spending on these kids went down by more than the special features of their homes cost.

In the meantime, !@#$%!