Contest Entries

The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Entrants: Ruthann Richter

Affiliation: StanĀ­ford Medicine Magazine

Consumer/Feature (small)

Year: 2011

Place: Second Place

Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

Judges’ comments: Ruthann Richter met the subject of her riveting article in 2000 and finally told her remarkable tale more than a decade later. Deborah Shurson fell 2,600 feet to earth in a 1982 skydiving accident and astonished her doctors, friends and loved ones by surviving. Richter followed Shurson through decades of struggle with rehabilitation, through a divorce, and ultimately into a loving and mutually beneficial relationship with a brain-injured man whose limited abilities complemented her own. There’s no fairy-tale ending here – but a sympathetic and truthful description of the struggles that begin once doctors have exhausted their magic.

Provide names of other  journalists involved.

Rosanne Spector, editor

List date(s) this work was published or aired.

See this entry.

Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

The story offers a window into the human impact of traumatic brain injury while exploring some of the mysteries of survival from catastrophic injury. It relates the astonishing experience of 30-year-old Deborah Shurson, who plummeted 2,600 feet to Earth in a skydiving accident in 1982. She suffered staggering injuries: a punctured lung, damaged spleen and multiple fractures to her ribs, pelvis, legs and sternum. But it was her brain injury that ultimately would prove to be the greatest threat to her life. Her rescuers found her unconscious and never expected her to survive the night, much less walk, talk or return to normal life. The story follows Deborah's progress in the decades following the accident, as she stumbles through rehabilitation and ultimately meets another brain-injured patient, Gary Fairchild, who becomes her partner in renewal. The story illustrates the human capacity to transcend illness and injury in the face of enormous threat. With support from Gary and many others, Deborah, determined and ever-upbeat, was able to call upon a deep well of inner resources to regain her life. Her saga is a testament to the human spirit-- and serves as a lesson for us all.

Explain types of documents, data or Internet resources used. Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?

I was able to obtain access to Deborah's voluminous medical records (with her consent), which provided intricate details on her injuries and the day-the-day progress of her recovery. Deborah also shared with me a family journal of the first few months she spent in intensive care at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. I also relied on books and online resources on the mechanics of parachuting and statistics on skydiving incidents, as well as wide-ranging information on brain injuries and their consequences.

Explain types of human sources used.

After I first met Deborah in 2000, I considered writing a book about her experiences as I found her story so compelling. I spent many hours interviewing Deborah and Gary at their home and workplace (then Foothill College), over breakfasts and dinners, at birthday parties and other events. But I was hampered by the fact that Deborah's memory was very poor because of her brain injury; she recalled little of the accident or its aftermath. So I had to rely heavily on the accounts of others, including her parents, ex-husband, brother and sister-in-law, counselors and mentors, as well as Gary, his family and friends. I also interviewed Deborah's doctors at length, including her neurosurgeon, orthopedist and pulmonologist. I visited John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., where Deborah spent 3 months, interviewing nurses in the intensive care unit and viewing the bed where Deborah recuperated. Ten years later, when the editor of Stanford Medicine magazine, showed an interest in the story, I went back and interviewed some of these sources again. This time, I also visited the rehabilitation unit at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where Deborah spent three months, and interviewed the lead physicians in the program. I also interviewed a neurosurgeon specializing in arteriovenous malformations (the cause of Gary's brain damage), a rehab expert at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System, as well as experts in psychiatry who offered insights on how people are able to survive major physical and psychological trauma.

Results (if any).

The story clearly touched a chord. I was personally inspired by Deborah, as were many readers from the around the country, who sent comments by the dozens. The story was featured on Longreads (it was its top-five pick of the week), as well as many other Websites, attracting interest from as far away as Europe, where two public radio stations called to interview Deborah.

Follow-up (if any). Have you run a correction or clarification on the report or has anyone come forward to challenge its accuracy? If so, please explain.

The responses were uniformly positive (see above). Those familiar with Deborah's story confirmed its accuracy.

Advice to other journalists planning a similar story or project.

Working with brain-injured patients can be a challenge, as they may have limitations in their ability to remember and process information and to express themselves (as was true in Deborah's case). I had to learn to be very patient-- to spend considerable time eliciting information and to be resourceful in finding other people, as well as written documents, that could shed light on past events and the individuals involved.