FITZGERALD, Georgia — On a muggy July evening, I sat on the dusty wooden floor of a cluttered one-bedroom house in Fitzgerald, Georgia, with notebook and pen in hand. Andres Diego and his wife, Wyona, sat across from me on a leaky queen-sized air mattress, speaking softly over the hum of a window unit on the sill behind them.
Andres and Wyona have been married for 22 years. Just after their second anniversary, Andres went into kidney failure. He’d been getting nosebleeds for months, but his doctors kept telling him nothing was wrong. Once Andres finally received a diagnosis, he began dialysis treatment. He’s spent three hours a day, three times a week attached to needles and tubes ever since, for two decades. The machine is his lifeline.
At the end of June, the U.S. Renal dialysis center down the road from Andres’s home in rural Georgia alerted him that it would be closing in a few weeks. There weren’t enough patients in the 9,000-person town to make much money, and the for-profit clinic decided to shut its doors. Within a few weeks, the U.S. Renal staff arranged for all patients to transfer to other dialysis centers, except one.
Andres is an undocumented immigrant without insurance. Because of his citizenship status, he doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. No clinic was willing to take him on as a patient, and even if one did, the next closest option is nearly 30 miles away. Without treatment, Andres would die within a matter of weeks.
As Wyona explained all of this to me, stopping every so often to catch her breath or wipe tears from her cheeks, I sat silently, struggling to make sense of it all. Wyona is an American citizen. She’s applied multiple times to sponsor her husband’s citizenship, but hit roadblock after roadblock. Now, Andres is chronically ill, and their options are running out.
“What do you do? ” Wyona asked me, voice shaking. “I mean, am I supposed to sit there and watch him die?”
I didn’t know what to say. So I just sat there, silently, struggling to meet her gaze.
I’m not a veteran reporter. Through Report for America, I’m just getting started at this whole professional journalism thing. In all honesty, much of the time, I just try to improvise as I go. This story, however, disheartened me in a way no other project has before, and I struggled to separate my most basic human emotions from my journalistic responsibility.
Where do you draw the line between reporter and confidant? As a journalist, I spend most of my time speaking with people. Sometimes they relay facts and figures, other times they impart opinions or ideologies. But the interviews that really stick with me – the ones that keep me awake at night, that bring a wordy collection of information and quotes to life on the page – are the personal experiences that give a face to a topic that once seemed theoretical or out of reach.
Sitting with the Diegos on that hot July evening, I saw firsthand the impact of a murky immigration system that can paralyze families that come on hard times. I saw the effect of the shortage of healthcare providers in rural areas, which can double or triple travel times for treatment when a local clinic closes down. I saw the desperation of a family on a fixed income, willing to pay out of pocket for care, if only anyone would let them.
It took everything in me to stay put in my spot on the floor, scribbling notes and nodding my chin up and down like a dumbfounded bobblehead. I wanted to get up and give the Diegos a hug, find them an immigration lawyer and call every dialysis clinic in the state until someone agreed to treat Andres. I wanted to do something – anything – to help.
Journalists aren’t supposed to be advocates. At least, not directly. Our job is to collect information, raise awareness, share stories. As a reporter, I often find myself navigating that gray zone between professional boundaries and personal empathy. I can’t help but connect on some level with the people I interview. And I don’t think that’s wrong. That fellow human connection is what allows us to open up to one another, to get honest, to get real. That’s where the best stories come from.
But where should I draw the line? Is it OK to be friends with a source, to check in with them, to offer help when they’re in need? Once an article is published, it’s hard for me to forget that their story is still writing itself on its own once I move on to my next assignment.
Weeks after The Telegraph published the story about the Diegos, I decided to call up Wyona, to see if she and her husband had found any relief. In her raspy Southern drawl, she told me Andres still hadn’t been accepted at any of the nearby clinics. Instead, the couple had been driving three times a week to an emergency room 40 minutes away, in Tifton, where Andres could get emergency dialysis treatment.
I told Wyona I was sorry, asked her to let me know if anything changed. Then I hung up the phone and started drafting an email. I forwarded my article to 20 immigration and advocacy health care groups, with the subject line “Please Help.”
“As a journalist, I cannot be this man’s advocate, and there’s not much I can do to help him,” I wrote. “But I can share his story.”
Three months have passed since then. A few organizations responded to my message, offering words of encouragement, but no long-term solution has surfaced yet. When Andres called me a few weeks ago to ask if I could connect him with an immigration lawyer he’d seen on Telemundo the night before, I said I’d see what I could do. It seemed like the right thing to do.
As I said, I’m still figuring out the balance between being professional and being human. But if I’m ever unsure, I think I’ll err on the side of compassion.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax.