Medical Sleuth
New York Times health writer Denise Grady '78G tells us what we need—and want—to know

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Denise Grady '78G, photo by Erin Gleason/UNH Photographic Services
Denise Grady '78G (Photo by Beatrice De Gea)

Q: As a health writer for the Times, you investigated an outbreak of a deadly virus in Angola. How dangerous was it?

A: Hemorrhagic fever is spread by bodily fluids. It's not in the air. If you keep your wits about you, you can do that kind of reporting in a safe way. One of the first people I interviewed was a doctor who said when they tracked down cases, they got people to come outside to talk and they stayed a couple of feet away. Common sense. He also said, "We don't stay here too long." After a couple of weeks, you get tired and you might get careless and start making mistakes.

Q: Was there one story that really opened your eyes?

A: I went to Tanzania to report on why maternal death rates in labor and childbirth are so high—more than 100 times higher than in developing countries. (Read "Where Life's Start Is a Deadly Risk" and "Fragile Tanzanian Orphans Get Help After Mothers Die") A photographer and I spent a number of nights in a hospital in the countryside. Women in labor would come in on the back of a bicycle or a motorcycle. We were watching Cesareans performed with very little water, and electricity from a generator. They saved the gauze from surgery. Nothing was thrown away. Everything went to the next room where women washed it in basins of soapy water on the floor, basin to basin. Then they would hang it on the line to dry. Surgical drapes, everything from the operating table. After that it went into the autoclave to be sterilized. Actually it wasn't a bad system. But having to reuse gauze—that was an eye-opener.

Q: What lessons have stayed with you from your time at UNH?

A: My husband was going to graduate school. I took classes as a special student. One day after class, professor Tom Carnicelli recommended that I consider the graduate writing program. He said I ought to talk to professor Don Murray '48. I thought no graduate program in English would take me because I had a biology degree. But Don chased me down. He said, "You really should apply." There are these pivotal moments in your life. That was one of them. One thing has always stayed with me. Don said people need to be told what they're good at. In the long run you may accomplish more by helping people recognize their strengths.

Q: Are you a crusader?

A: Maybe yes, in terms of drawing attention to things that ought to get attention. Things like illegal abortions. In a women's ward in Tanzania, half of 20 women were recovering from illegal abortions. This was a hospital with so few resources, and they're having to patch women up from these horrible botched procedures. You don't really get it until you stand in the operating room and see what it takes to fix something like that.

Q: You wrote a book for young readers, Deadly Invaders.

A: The Times wanted to do a book for students about viruses. Each chapter is a medical mystery that was not understood immediately and took a lot of detective work to figure out.

Q: Denise Grady, detective. Was it fun to write?

A: It was. I do like stories about weird germs.

Q: You won the Victor Cohn Prize from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A: I was very flattered and honored. I get the most pleasure out of writing about something complicated in a way ordinary people can understand. My parents were very smart and read a lot. But they didn't have opportunities. My father went to high school. My mother only went to eighth grade. I guess I'm still thinking of them as the model of the intelligent lay person. Recently I did a story about a man who was on the operating table for 43 hours. He waited a while to read the article because the operation had been such an ordeal. But he said, "You know, you really wrote that for the common man." I was thrilled. ~

Rebecca Rule '76, '79G, is a storyteller, story gatherer and humorist and the author of Live Free and Eat Pie: A Storyteller's Guide to New Hampshire, The Best Revenge and Could Have Been Worse: True Stories, Embellishments and Outright Lies.

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