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Reporter turned on-deadline account of a dental death into more than a tragic story Date: 03/23/17

Sammy Caiola

By Mary Otto

Sacramento Bee health reporter Sammy Caiola worked quickly to give her readers the story about the death of a young California father from complications of a dental infection.

Her reporting began at 10 a.m. on Jan. 31 when she found the kernel of the story in an email. By that afternoon, Caiola had tracked down and visited with the man's grieving widow, interviewed a knowledgeable local dentist on the causes of dental deaths and located peer-reviewed research that added depth and context to her piece. She managed to file a basic version of her story by 2:30 p.m. and turned in a longer version of the story by the 5 p.m. print deadline.

In this Q&A, Caiola walks us through that busy day of reporting and reflects on what surprised her most in her work on the story. She also offers tips to colleagues who might find themselves covering a dental death on deadline.

Q: How did you first hear about the death of Vadim Kondratyuk?

A: I heard about the death of Vadim Kondratyuk through an email sent by a representative with the website GoFundMe. The family was hoping to raise money to cover funeral costs and other expenses, and the GoFundMe representative asked if I'd be interested in writing their story. I get a lot of health-related story pitches from GoFundMe and I don't write all of them, but the tooth infection element caught my interest.

Q: How did your reporting on this story unfold?

A: The first thing I did was try to reach the Kondratyuk family through their GoFundMe account (the representative who pitched the story wouldn't give me their number). I left a message there with my condolences and a request for an interview. I also tried calling a few Ukranian churches in their area that I thought they may have been associated with, but no luck.

While I was waiting for the call from the family, I searched my inbox for dentists I had spoken with in the past and called Dr. John Luther, who I was able to interview immediately. Shortly after that I received the call I was waiting for from (Kondratyuk’s widow) Nataliya, and I arranged to meet her at a nearby home where she was grieving with other family members.

Q: You did a sensitive job of interweaving the tragic story with research on the costly and sometimes fatal consequences of dental infections. Tell us how you went about adding a larger context to the story on deadline.

A: The story was emotional off the bat because Vadim was so young and had to leave his family behind so early. It was difficult to interview Nataliya just a few days after her loss, but I could tell she wanted to share her story. I asked her to explain the exact timeline that led to his death, and I also asked her for some anecdotes and details of his life. She didn't have much to say about his cause of death other than that it was sudden.

I used my phone call with Dr. Luther to get the bigger picture behind tooth infections. Dr. Luther couldn't speak to Vadim's exact case, but he was all too familiar with the concept of untreated tooth infections. He explained the science of the decay to me and talked about some factors and behaviors that might predispose people to severe infections. He also cued me into the Deamonte Driver case, which got me started on researching dental deaths in general. It was a little hard to find exact statistics, but I was eventually able to find one in the Journal of Endodontics.

Q: You provided your readers with useful advice on handling dental problems in a timely way. Was there any trick to finding an expert quickly to address this important aspect of the story?

A: I happened to have Dr. Luther's contact information saved from a prior story I'd written on which Halloween candies are best and worst for tooth health. If I hadn't caught him, I probably would have called someone at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, which I know has a robust dental program.

Q: Looking back on your work on this piece, what surprised you most?

A: I think I was most surprised by how well the story performed online and how much feedback I got from readers. I knew it was interesting, but I didn't expect so many people to latch onto it and share it on social media. Several readers called me about it and said they were just so shocked to learn that poor dental hygiene could have fatal consequences, and thanked me for writing the story.

Q: What advice do you have for reporters who might find themselves putting together a dental death story like this on deadline?

A: My best advice would be to make sure you have a trusted expert for the wider context. If someone dies, their family won't likely be in a place to tell you the deeper medical meaning behind that death, and framing the death as preventable could make the family feel you are pointing blame at their loved one. A knowledgeable provider will be able to explain the death from an academic perspective and share any cautionary messages.

Sammy Caiola (@SammyCaiola) is a public health reporter for The Sacramento Bee.