My Story

Carbon Monoxide

“Any Publicity Is Good Publicity”

By James Donahue

It began with a police report that a black family had been hospitalized. Some of the children were unconscious and in critical condition after their home filled with carbon monoxide fumes from a leaking chimney pipe.

It happened in the 1960s in South Haven, Michigan, when I was working there as a bureau reporter for a daily newspaper in Benton Harbor.

At least one of the children was so critical that he was transferred to one of the two large hospitals in nearby Kalamazoo for special treatment. He recovered.

It was a major story and I contacted the family, got pictures of the family and got personal accounts of what happened. They said they woke up in the night suffering headaches and nausea. Some of the children were so ill the parents decided that everyone should go to South Haven Community Hospital to be checked out.

A doctor on call that night refused to get out of bed and drive to the hospital to see the family. It was a small hospital and there was never a doctor on staff around the clock. A nurse checked the family over, found nobody running a fever. The decision was made to send everybody back home. They were given the usual instructions to see a doctor in the morning if the symptoms got worse.

Before the night was over the symptoms got much worse. This time an ambulance was called and the police and the health department got involved. It seemed that the doctor and medical staff sent the family right back into a house filled with lethal carbon monoxide fumes. It almost killed them.

I wrote my story after calling the hospital, attempting to find out why the family was sent back home. I do not remember what I was told, but I doubt if either the doctor or hospital administrator were willing to give me much of a statement.

My story and picture ran on the front page. The South Haven Tribune, our competitive newspaper, didn’t get on this story until the following day. When the Tribune story appeared, it was a personal attack on me and my newspaper by the hospital administrator. He called my story irresponsible and incorrect, and said it unfairly painted the hospital in a dim light. The administrator denied that the family had been turned away and that the hospital could be blamed for any wrongdoing.

I was naturally upset when I saw the Tribune story and called my editor. His name was Bert Lindenfelt, one of the best editors I ever worked for.  I’ll never forget Bert’s response. Once assured that I had checked and double checked my sources, and that I had attempted to contact the administrator before filing my story, he told me not to worry about the Tribune attack. “It was publicity,” he said. “One thing you need to remember in this business is that any publicity is good publicity. The Tribune got a lot of people interested in reading your story.”

The case, which involved the rejection of a poor black family during a time of extreme racial tension all across the land, did not end there. A few weeks later I received a telephone call from the president of the hospital board. He said he wanted to personally apologize for the attack that the administrator and the Tribune leveled against me. He commended me for doing an outstanding job of uncovering what had happened to that family. He also notified me that the hospital administrator who caused the furor had been fired. Thus I had another “scoop.”

I was kind and wrote the story straight. I never told the readers why this administrator “resigned his post,” or made any reference to the carbon monoxide poisoning story. I think everybody in town knew the truth, however. South Haven isn’t a big city and people there knew what was going on. I didn’t have to tell them.

I was greeted with a big warm smile when I brought an eight-by-ten glossy print of the family to the house as a personal gift. The blacks in the area knew that I was fair, and that was all they wanted.

Not long after that my wife Doris and I were invited to a special dinner and award ceremony at the Covert Public School. Covert was at the time an almost all-black community located a few miles east of South Haven. We attended and found ourselves the only white faces in the room. Because of all of the civil rights issues occurring throughout the nation we expected tension, but the people seemed glad that we would be willing to attend their event. In fact, someone introduced us to the whole room during the award ceremonies. We felt quite welcome and honored to have been there that night.