Profile: Author, Humanitarian, and Pulitzer Prize Winner Sheri Fink
Dose of Reality: Dr. Sheri Fink uses her medical training as a source in her reporting from around the globe
Detroit media lawyer Herschel Fink recalls his daughter Sheri’s birthday call from Iraq soon after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Their exchange had to be short, Sheri explained, because she had climbed to a rooftop for better satellite reception and gunfire was close.
“As she was speaking, we got cut off,” Herschel says. Sheri’s stepmother, Adrienne, was distressed, but Herschel was cool about his daughter’s safety: “My comment was, ‘That’s Sheri, she’s in the middle of these things.’ ”
Dr. Sheri Fink, author, acclaimed humanitarian aid worker, and 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting, is making a career of being in the middle of things — from wars to disaster zones. Drawing on her training and firsthand experiences, she writes about what happens to medical care when social order shatters.
Her Pulitzer-winning report, “Deadly Choices at Memorial,” takes readers into the hellish, sweltering conditions at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina. It was there that exhausted staff, lacking electricity and water, decided that some patients would be better off dead than awaiting rescue. First published online at ProPublica, and then as a cover story for The New York Times Magazine in August 2009, the 13,000-word piece took more than two years of painstaking research.
“Deadly Choices” also earned Sheri several other awards, including a National Magazine Award (the industry’s Oscar) and many speaking engagements. Earlier this year, The Daily Beast named her one of the 20 smartest people of 2010, an honor shared with comedian Jon Stewart and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, among others.
“I found out about it from an email, [from] someone who sent it to me,” the soft-spoken Sheri says.
Besides earning awards and speaking invitations, Sheri’s post-Katrina investigation influenced U.S. guidelines on disaster preparedness, said a lawyer who helped draft them.
She’s now taking the lessons she learned from “Deadly Choices” and her own humanitarian aid work through the years and applying them to a book she’s writing about post-disaster medical care.
Sheri’s career as a reporter may not seem surprising, given that her father, a onetime Detroit News staffer, went on to become a lawyer who helped the Detroit Free Press expose Kwame Kilpatrick’s corrupt administration. That accomplishment earned the paper its own investigative reporting Pulitzer in 2009.
“When Sheri won,” Herschel says, “I got an e-mail from my friends at the Free Press saying, ‘Don’t forget, we got you there first.’ ”
Sheri’s route to journalism wasn’t planned. While completing a psychology degree at the University of Michigan (class of ’90), she pictured her future self wearing a doctor’s white coat, shuttling between a patient office and a research lab. After U-M, she entered a combined M.D./Ph.D. neuroscience program at Stanford. She completed her clinicals, then took a year off before applying for residencies. That’s when her career took a left turn.
She worked that summer at The Oregonian newspaper’s health-and-science desk. “I really fell in love with reporting,” she says, noting that it requires some of the same skills doctors use: interviewing, weighing information, and truth seeking. Her ardor for journalism created a dilemma, though. She would have liked to juggle reporting with patient care. But she didn’t feel she could do both and be fair to patients, she said, weighing her words carefully to not offend those who do.
Eventually, her path was clear but, she says: “It was a really hard decision.”
After The Oregonian, she went to Bosnia to research the practice of medicine in war, which led to her first book, War Hospital. Then, serendipity led her to humanitarian aid work.
It started when a doctor acquaintance spotted her trying to persuade local police to let her in to interview war refugees from nearby Kosovo for a medical human-rights organization.
“They literally said, ‘She’s a doctor, we need her, let her in.’ ”
Years later, Sheri continues to forgo hands-on medical care in all but the most extreme situations, since she’s not a full-fledged clinician. Instead, she helps people gain access to care, obtains medical supplies, and trains others.
Hints of the current Sheri may be found in her years at Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills (class of ’86), where she set up safe rides for students who’d been drinking. At Stanford, she co-founded Students Against Genocide amid ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Sheri has now done extensive aid work and reporting from other unstable and dangerous spots, including Africa, Haiti, and Pakistan. In February, she got a sharp, personal reminder of how dangerous that work can be when CBS reporter Lara Logan, with whom Sheri worked as a fellow aid worker in Kosovo in 1999, was sexually assaulted in Egypt.
While insisting that she’s not a “risk taker,” Sheri admits that danger is “the reality of this type of work.”