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The Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards: Solicited Articles - Bronze

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Hanging Tough
Hanging Tough

“Hanging Tough” by Jim Duffy
Johns Hopkins Medicine Marketing and Communications

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ They were all crying.

Jeremiah started crying too. When he found his father — burned body wrapped in blankets, eyes glazed but open — he put a gentle hand on his forehead and said the only words that came to...”

Johns Hopkins Burn Center director Scott Hultman was new to Johns Hopkins when I ran into him at a social gathering. He wasn’t sure how external communications worked at Hopkins, and his eyes lit up when he learned of my role as editor at Hopkins Medicine magazine. “Boy, have I got a story for you!” he said.

Indeed, he did. Over the next hour, he shared the story of Pierre Gibbons, a “hometown hero,” who had run into a blazing row house to save his neighbor — and emerged with severe burns and extremely low odds of survival. Hultman described how his team at the Burn Center had used brand new protocols, including a “spray-on skin” made of stem cells, to bring Gibbons back from the brink of death. Given the success of these therapies, Hultman said, they would become the new standard of care for burn patients at Hopkins moving forward.

I was sold. So was freelance writer Jim Duffy, who set out on a months-long journey of lengthy interviews: with Hultman, other clinicians on the Burn Center team, Gibbons himself, and Gibbons’ family members.

- Sue De Pasquale, editor

Jim Duffy
Jim Duffy

What was the most impactful part of your award-winning entry?
Our writer’s ability to reconstruct — in dramatic fashion — the critical hours, days and months of Pierre Gibbons’ burn treatment, from a variety of perspectives, including those of Gibbons, his family members, and his Johns Hopkins doctors.

What is one thing you learned from this experience?
Telling a compelling story requires many, many hours of reporting and access to key players — and a willingness for interviewees to be generous with their time and honest in expressing their feelings.

What challenge did you overcome?
Burn center doctors are very busy people, and the Gibbons family was (understandably) focused on Pierre Gibbons’ care. Our writer needed to be patient, persistent, and sensitive in gaining extensive interview time with the story’s subjects.

What was the biggest challenge in writing about this topic?
Pierre Gibbons, Baltimore’s “hometown hero,” had gotten lots of press. Our challenge was to provide readers with fresh information, and to relate the complex details of his innovative burn treatment in terms that were compelling and accessible.

Contact

Michael Keating, mkeating@jhmi.edu

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