Behind the O’Connor Love Story

A remarkable story surfaced in Phoenix last week. Maybe you heard or
read about it. I have the inside story as to how it came about.

probably know that retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day
O’Connor left office to take care of her husband John, who has
Alzheimer’s. John lives in a facility near Phoenix that cares for
patients with dementia. When he first moved there he was depressed, and
his health was declining. That part of the story was, of course, out of
the public view — a family’s private grief.

But sometimes
strange things happen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Sometimes
they form emotional and even romantic attachments to other patients.
These “mistaken attachments,” as they’re called, occur fairly
frequently, and families rarely talk about them.

But the
O’Connor family has lived a public life. The justice herself was open
about her bout with breast cancer. And so, when KPNX-TV’s Veronica Sanchez
was working on a story about mistaken attachments and coincidentally
came across John’s story, it was nothing short of heroic that this
public family would allow the private story to be told to focus the
public’s attention on something that was, until now, a hidden shame.

hope you will read the interview I did with Veronica and KPNX special
projects producer Bert Sass. How did they make sure they told an
important story without sensationalizing it? First you may want to
watch a couple of versions of the story.

Here is a link to KPNX’s story.

Here is a version of the story by NBC Nightly News (see the “New Chapter for O’Connor” link under the Tuesday, Nov. 13 section).

Here is USA Today’s story, along with a related opinion piece.

Q. How did you find this story?

Sanchez: In two words — dumb luck. I had set up a story about mistaken
attachments at another Alzheimer’s nursing home facility in Phoenix,
but at the last minute all that fell apart. The woman helping me set up
the story referred me to the Huger Mercy Living Center. Before that, I
was ready to pull the plug on the whole thing. The director at Huger
told me she had two families willing to speak on camera but that only
the sons would be doing the interviews. When I pressed to speak to the
wife in question, that’s when I discovered the wife was Sandra Day
O’Connor. I dropped the phone. The rest is history I guess.

I would imagine many people would recoil from the story idea, saying it
is too personal to report. Others would have dismissed it as impossible
to nail down. What was your gut reaction when you heard about it? How
did you think through the question of “why is this news?”

A. Sanchez:
Well, I dropped the phone, so that pretty much captures my gut
reaction. I called the director back several times before the shoot to
make sure we had permission from Sandra Day O’Connor and all the other
families involved (I would have done that anyway), but I honestly
didn’t believe it until Scott O’Connor [Sandra Day O'Connor's son] was
sitting next to me. The question of whether this is news or “too
personal” is very simple for me. The family said they wanted to bring
awareness to the reality of Alzheimer’s, that they are not alone. From
the moment the camera rolled, that was our objective.

Certainly Sandra Day O’Connor is still a public figure. Her family’s
involvement obviously changed the approach to this story — but not its
primary message. We wanted to do a story on a specific condition of
some Alzheimer’s patients. I don’t know that we would have pursued the
O’Connor family for this story if they had not stepped forward to be
part of it. Granted, it is a more interesting story because it involves
a former Supreme Court justice, but Veronica reported the story in a
way that would also provide a public service as the O’Connors asked.

Q. How did you go about verifying the story? What obstacles were in the way, and how did you overcome them?

was our sole contact. He had direct permission from his mother. I
trusted that. … The director at Huger gave us permission to shoot
anything we wanted. And when we weren’t sure of something, we asked.
Bert did a tremendous job assuring the family of our intentions.

Q. This story would not have happened without the O’Connor family’s help and permission. Why did the family cooperate?

Awareness. I believe in my heart that she wanted to tell this story.
Otherwise we wouldn’t have ever gotten through the front door.

What ethical concerns did you have about showing Mr. O’Connor and Kay,
the woman with whom he struck up a friendship? How did you make the
decisions on what to show or not to show?

We had some concerns. First of all, this story is hard for a logical
person to understand. We didn’t follow Scott and his father all day
long, only for a few minutes really. He was there to visit his dad, so
at some point I decided to turn the camera off and allow the two a
visit without the cameras. The picture with John and Kay holding hands
was tricky, but it was happening right in front of us. We got two or
three shots and moved on. Scott seemed OK with it, but I could tell he
didn’t want us to overdo it, and I don’t think we did. We kept our
distance out of respect.

Q. How has the public reacted to this story? How has the family reacted?

Sanchez: There’s been a tremendous amount of reaction from very
positive to very bad. The family says they got incredible feedback from
the Alzheimer’s community and that it was all positive. I feel we did
our job.

Scott told me he was satisfied with the way Veronica and
photojournalist Garrett Wichmann handled the story and that he received
positive feedback from others in the Alzheimer’s community. However, he
did say that one family member heard about the story after the fact and
disagreed with the decision to go public because he thought it should
be a private matter. I’ve heard that some blogs had the same opinion
but were not aware of how willingly the O’Connors participated.

Q. What were the biggest lessons you learned from this project?

Sanchez: Humility. To tell this personal story is a privilege. I felt a
lot of pressure to not only be accurate but super sensitive, which as
you know is sometimes hard to do in general news.

It proved to me that we can do a story that is potentially sensational
and yet handle it with sensitivity. Veronica, Garrett and our promo
producers carefully walked the line in the way they did the story and
the promo.

Also, I was pleased and impressed that other Gannett stations, NBC and USA Today all
apparently took seriously our appeals for sensitivity in handling the
content we had originated. From what I’ve seen, they did just that,
even though the network and USA Today did their own versions of the story.

I like the way the USA Today opinion piece sums up its admiration for the O’Connor family’s decision to go public with the story:

the baby boom generation ages, more Americans are going to have to face
the challenges of Alzheimer’s. Already, about 5 million, most older
than 65, are living with Alzheimer’s.
Someone develops the disease every 72 seconds. Without a cure, 7.7
million Americans are likely to suffer by 2030 and as many as 16
million by the middle of the century.

for them is an enormous challenge. A patient changes slowly — from mild
forgetfulness to a range of behaviors that can include aggression,
drastic personality change and eventually forgetting those closest to
them, as O’Connor’s husband has done.

Romance with others at care facilities is not uncommon. It was central to this year’s movie Away From Her,
starring Julie Christie. O’Connor’s reaction is a model for dealing
with it. “Mom was thrilled that Dad was relaxed and happy,” Scott
O’Connor, 50, told a Phoenix TV station. Away From Her ultimately conveyed the same message, but delved into how painful, and difficult, that can be.

prominent people have helped expose Americans to the tragic and complex
realities of Alzheimer’s. Ronald Reagan bade a dignified farewell and
retreated from public life when he learned he had it in 1994. Former
first lady Nancy Reagan has appealed for more embryonic stem cell research, one possible avenue for slowing or curing the disease.

Supreme Court opinions more often than not reflected a concern for how
laws applied to real life. In 1994, when she talked of coping with a
mastectomy, her openness encouraged others to face another frightening
illness. Though retired, her decisions are still making a difference.

Please add your comments to Al’s Morning Meeting, where this piece originally ran. 

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