Inside the Times | Mike Fancher
Reporter, photographer put their hearts into Gloria's story
Seattle Times editor-at-large
Call it chance or fate, a coin flip gave Jerry Brewer an assignment that has changed his life and the lives of countless Seattle Times readers.
The story was about a high-school basketball coach whose 11-year-old daughter, Gloria, has been fighting cancer since she was 7. A sports editor pitched the idea to Brewer and fellow columnist Steve Kelley. When both said they wanted to do it, they agreed to a coin flip and Brewer was chosen. Photographer Steve Ringman came to the story by chance, as well. A conflict got in the way of another photographer who was set to do the work. Ringman, just back from an assignment in Africa, was asked to pick it up.
Everything since then has been amazing, perhaps miraculous. What was to be a single column in the sports section became a phenomenon The Times calls, "A prayer for Gloria." There have been nine installments in print since May, a continuing reporter's journal online, photo galleries and audio slide shows.
And there has been more reader response than I can recall for any story in almost 30 years at The Times. Today we publish a small portion of some 2,500 messages from readers, expressing how they have been touched by Gloria Strauss, her family and their faith.
A universal story
In the four years Gloria has fought neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer, she has endured seven chemotherapy treatments, a stem-cell transplant and several experimental drugs. When the family allowed Brewer and Ringman into their lives, doctors were saying Gloria had only weeks remaining. She, her parents, six siblings and friends had turned to faith for a healing miracle.
The columnist and photographer said they knew immediately that this was going to be a universal story, a life-altering experience for them and for readers. The Strauss family would hold back nothing. Their faith had guided them to believe that God would heal Gloria and her story would change the lives of many.
In the months since, Brewer, Ringman and photographer Mike Siegel have chronicled Gloria's progress with work that can only be called inspired. The Strauss family and friends have embraced them completely. All the barriers are down.
"We are part of Gloria's miracle, communicating it, and they know that," Ringman said.
In July, she was immobile for nine days. Then she recovered. As the cancer spread to Gloria's brain and lungs, she was admitted to the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center. In a medically induced coma, her breathing was regulated by a ventilator. Prayer vigils were held at her bedside. Then she awakened from her coma and began breathing on her own.
"I couldn't believe I was there. It was so spiritual, just so moving," Ringman said.
A passage from Brewer's story of Aug. 31 reflects the intimacy of his presence. Brewer wrote that Gloria's father asked if she wanted to go to heaven. "I want my miracle," she said softly. "I want my family."
The story continued, "A day later the ventilator is removed. Gloria has been breathing close to normal since last Friday. She has been transferred out of intensive care."
Ringman said even family and friends who visit the hospital often go to Brewer for updates, not wanting to burden Gloria's parents, Doug and Kristen Strauss. "Jerry is the source of information," Ringman said.
Brewer's online journal has become the medium for connecting readers, family and friends to Gloria's progress. At one point, he received a desperate e-mail from a reader saying essentially, "I've been hitting the refresh button for two hours, where are you?"
The power of Brewer's writing comes from what he calls, "not being afraid to put your heart in things." He said the Strauss family "poured their souls out for us. I've got to bleed along with them in that story."
"You've got to feel it"
Given how personal this assignment has become, I felt I should ask Brewer and Ringman whether their own faith has affected or been affected by the story.
Brewer said his grandfather is a Baptist preacher and he grew up in a very spiritual family. "It's still a factor in my life. It helps me feel the story. You've got to feel it."
Brewer said that when the Strauss family prays, "I know the Bible passage they recite and what they mean." But the Strauss family is Catholic. "We're both Christians, but it's a lot different," he said.
Ringman said that he has not been a very spiritual person, but the story "opens an opportunity to feel God. It's very moving and I'm surprised by that."
A few readers have objected to the centrality of faith in the story. Brewer responds that many families use faith to help them through illness, but "very few newspapers have documented this feeling — religion, if you will — that is very strong and moving within lots of suffering families. By presenting what this family believes and focusing on it, I'm simply putting a mirror on them."
His online journal is personal, but the stories that appear in the newspaper are told in an unbiased way with very little filtering, he wrote to one reader. "You're left to make your own conclusions, and if you decide it's bogus, that is perfectly fine."
Brewer said he tries to focus on the universal elements of Gloria's story. He added that one reader commented that what the Strauss family calls faith, that reader calls love.
Both Ringman and Brewer said they have been changed by this assignment.
"Problems seem insignificant compared to what I've witnessed in the Strauss family," Ringman said. "My perspective on life really has changed, spiritually and even materially — love and our children are much more important."
Brewer answered, "What hasn't this story changed about my life? It's literally changed everything. I'm a better man and a better journalist, and I realize even more so that the man comes before the journalist.
"Gloria's life has an amazing integrity and authenticity to it, and that's what I seek. In everything. I want to do things that really matter in life, especially connecting better with the people I love. I want to strengthen my own faith. And I want tell more stories like this that really affect the community in a heartfelt manner.
"Sometimes, I just think to myself, 'Wow, doing this story has redefined everything.' I'm very proud I can say that."
Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company