Alan Cassels is a researcher and author.
Editor’s Note: Health journalist and author Alicia Priest died on Jan. 13, 2015, three years after receiving a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She documented her experience with ALS for CMAJ; “Living with ALS” was the last article she ever wrote. Alan Cassels writes here about his former neighbour, friend and colleague.
I met Alicia fifteen years ago when she interviewed me for a major story she was working on for Vancouver’s Georgia Straight about the world of prescription drug information. The resulting piece — entitled “Possible Side Effects” —showed a huge graphic on the cover of a nurse cracking open a giant capsule, alongside the words “As many as 10,000 Canadians die each year from medications doctors say will help. What’s going on?”
What indeed? Looking back on what turned out to be a hard-hitting and detailed exposé of the pharmaceutical industry, I realize that experience made its mark on me. It was the first time I’d spent that much time talking through the issues with a real journalist (and it’s probably why I will always have time for journalists when they call). I soon realized that her stories about health care were good not just because she was a trained nurse and knew the backstory better than many of her contemporaries, but because she wasn’t afraid of tackling the right person to interview, pinning down the villains and showing the humanity of a situation, skills honed on various journalistic beats at the Vancouver Sun.
My wife and I soon became friends with Alicia and her husband Ben. Her daughter Charlotte babysat our kids. A few years later, a research group I was working with received a grant to deliver a workshop to journalism students on how to report on prescription drugs. I was going to manage the project but I needed someone to help me, because I had this preposterous idea that we needed to travel to all of Canada’s journalism schools (at that time 14 in total) to deliver the workshop. I was delighted when Alicia agreed to work with me. We had a blast putting together and presenting to aspiring journalists what amounted to Pharmaceutical Spin 101. In one fall and winter, we visited all 14 journalism schools (Alicia did the Kings College in Halifax on her own when I got grounded by a snowstorm in Toronto).
Even in that Georgia Straight article I saw that her writing showed a bit of an activist’s edge. Writing for a major Vancouver magazine, where street drugs are constantly in the news, she ended that story by talking about something everyone in Vancouver saw every day: drug abuse. She concluded: “Perhaps it’s time governments that spend so many resources discouraging one form of drug abuse paid more attention to the other.”
I had the pleasure of getting to know Alicia through Alan, and Ben and Charlotte too. I recall shared meals outdoors and in, and riotous laughter and irreverence from her and the people she drew to her, laughter that still resonates in my mind and heart. She interviewed me once for a story she was working on, and I offered a fairly colourful and decidedly irreverent comment of my own in our wide-ranging discourse, thinking nothing of it. A few days later there it was in print, to my chagrin, but to Alicia’s delight — and eventually my own, as her journalist’s sense of what worked superseded my own reticence.
Alicia was a very bright spark. ALS is a cruel disease, that let’s you see its rapacious plans as it inexorably devours all your gifts and capacities and then tosses you out of this world. Alicia was a wonderful writer and a wonderful person, who ended up taking everything ALS had to offer on the chin, and defiantly overcoming its cruelty with her own grace and commitment. I am so sorry she is gone.