May 2012

Out On a Limb: Class act

Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

When I was in journalism school in Los Angeles, securing a spot in the reporting class taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times writer George Ramos was a coup. It was also terrifying.

This was a class, we were told, that would destroy your grade point average and your self-esteem. On the first day, our mustachioed instructor strode into the room and immediately confirmed, “What you’ve heard about me is true.
I am an a-hole.” (Except, of course, he used the unabridged version of that last word.)

But it turned out that everything else we had heard was also true. I honestly believe surviving that class was essential to any journalistic success I’ve had since then.

It also turned out that George Ramos wasn’t always an a-hole. He really wanted us to succeed, even if he wasn’t going to make it easy for us. He was both a teacher and a friend. He cared deeply about journalism and its role in making Los Angeles, where he had spent most of his life, a better place.

He also was very passionate about his Latino heritage. He earned the first of his three Pulitzers with a 1983 story about returning to the east LA barrio where he grew up, where strong cultural connections still thrived despite the poverty and gang violence, where the owner of a mom-and-pop grocery store delivered groceries to elderly customers and grandmothers made flour tortillas from scratch.

It was a life that most of us, as sheltered white kids, had never known. We didn’t know those types of challenges. But we didn’t know that type of ethnic pride either.

George never wrote about the challenges of being Latino with regard to diabetes, of diagnosis rates twice as high as in non-Hispanic whites and mortality rates 1.5 times higher. But he lived with those challenges. He died unexpectedly last summer of a heart attack at the age of 63, and autopsy results showed extensive organ damage related to his chronic diabetes, which friends said he had had difficulty controlling.

Making generalizations about race or ethnicity is politically problematic, but clinically it can be very useful. The increased prevalence and severity of knee osteoarthritis experienced by African Americans (see “Patient race contributes to burden of knee OA”), as another example, underscores the need for practitioners to help patients in that demographic get access to treatment.

A close-knit community like the one George Ramos grew up in offers an ideal setting for educating residents about any clinical risks associated with their race or ethnicity. Parents in George’s old neighborhood can teach their kids about the risks of diabetes the same way they teach them to stay in school and steer clear of the local gangs.

It would have been the perfect story for a journalist who spent his professional life educating himself and others about issues that affect Latinos. I’d like to think that if he’d had more time, he would have added diabetes to that list, that it might have led him to yet another Pulitzer Prize.

If only he’d had more time.

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