Writer Sat on His Own Life-and-Death Story
Monday, June 26, 2006
For a reporter whose specialty is digging out secrets, Murray Waas has been keeping one about himself for a long time.
He was once diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer and told he had little chance of survival. More recently, he had to fight off a recurrence and his subsequent bankruptcy from medical bills.
"I feel almost relieved getting it out," he says. "I'm just fatigued from trying to hide it."
It's hard to say where the line should be drawn when it comes to such an intensely personal disclosure. Did Waas's near-death experience, and subsequent complications, affect his journalism? How could such a searing experience not change your outlook on work and life?
Waas, who works for the National Journal and has drawn attention lately for several scoops in the CIA leak investigation, sued George Washington University Medical Center for failing to diagnose his cancer, winning a $650,000 judgment. But over the years he has persuaded other reporters to steer clear of his medical history on grounds that it was private -- an interesting stance for a journalist who asks probing questions for a living.
"I kept it a huge secret," says Waas, who decided to go public after receiving an inquiry from Washington City Paper and concluding that such questions would continue to dog him.
Waas learned he had colon cancer in 1987, at the age of 26. He says the outlook was so grim that he regarded it as a "death sentence." Legal papers in the case refer to "incurable stage C cancer" and his "terminal prognosis." A pathologist hired by his side told the court that in his experience "over 90 percent of patients" with such an advanced form of cancer "are dead by the end of two years."
But surgery and chemotherapy saved Waas's life. He sued GW for having negligently failed to diagnose the cancer three years earlier, and won a 1992 verdict that was upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals. A spokeswoman for the medical center had no comment.
"It was pretty atrocious," says his attorney, Anthony Newman, noting that Waas's doctors never recommended a colonoscopy despite symptoms of bleeding, diarrhea and gastrointestinal problems. "This man had chronically complained to GW and wound up with a tumor the size of a grapefruit that had spread to the lymph nodes."
Waas acknowledges that the disease influenced him in the late 1980s when he was writing for the Boston Globe about the collapse of Florida health care facilities where some cancer patients had died. "I wrote that as someone who my family and doctors thought was certainly going to die from cancer," he says. "Is it relevant to my work when I report on national security, foreign policy or politics? I don't think so."
But the lines are not so easily drawn. In one of several conversations, Waas says his near-death experience made him more determined to report on how the country got into both Persian Gulf wars, with their life-and-death stakes. After watching on Capitol Hill when the Gulf War resolution was approved in 1991, Waas interviewed two men at the Vietnam War Memorial who said two of their friends had died in that war and questioned why the United States was getting into another one. He saw in this "the mirror image of my own life" -- the unresolved questions about why his cancer was missed -- and vowed to fully investigate the war.
"Cancer almost cost me my life, but the experience led me to do the most important reporting of my career," he says.