He worked himself to death

By Caitlin Kelly

The world of journalism is full of competitive, ambitious, driven people. I’m one of them.


But a recent death — that of 39-year-old New York writer Matthew Power — raises questions for me that remain troubling and unanswered. He died in Uganda while on assignment of heatstroke.

On Facebook I read, and joined, a discussion with other journalists why his decisions seemed normal. Not to me.

From Bloomberg Businessweek:

And yet there was something else, too. Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time….

It took Wood, Beka, Florio, and the rest several hours to get Matt’s body to the village of Arua. They lost most of Tuesday trying unsuccessfully to secure a helicopter to transfer his body to Kampala. By the time of his postmortem exam on Wednesday morning—36 hours since he’d passed away early on Monday afternoon—his body had begun to decompose badly, making it difficult to determine whether a preexisting condition or other factors had contributed to his collapse. To Florio, at least, his death poses no great mystery. Matt, he says, failed to acclimate to Uganda. The temperature as his flight departed New York was roughly 20F—had been, it seemed, for months.

“No one has that kind of time.”

This was not a breaking news story. He was not covering a war or conflict or election, nor competing head to head against dozens of other reporters on deadline.

If you’re working for so little money or on so tight a budget or feel so frenzied that you can’t afford even an extra day or two so take care of your body’s very real needs, what purpose does this faux frenzy actually serve?

To save your editor’s magazine $100 or $200?

I didn’t know Power or his work or the person who wrote this story about him. Power seems to have been universally loved and admired, so my comment is not meant to disrespect him or his skill. Let’s be clear about that.

But his judgment — and the encomiums of others mourning this set of decisions to race ahead at all costs — is not something I wish to emulate.

In the vastly diminished world of journalism, in which pay rates are lower than a decade ago and well-paid assignments rare for many, pushing back to defend your needs is now seen as suspect, grabby and weird; I was recently offered a contract that would only pay me 25 percent of the original $4,000 fee if it didn’t work out as we all hoped.

It didn’t, after two full revisions.

But, knowing this can happen on certain sorts of stories especially, when I asked for a better deal, I was called “difficult.”

I hate this.

Freelancers live in a state of perpetual professional and economic vulnerability. Caving immediately to editors’ “needs” — typically for more profit — is considered normal behavior.

Power died a few days before I left for Nicaragua to work in a five-person team, interviewing locals in 95-degree heat in 12-hour days, sometimes in the remote countryside. We often worked in full sun, drenched in sweat, frantically seeking whatever shade we could find; there was little to be had.

One morning, after walking and climbing in full sun for a few hours, I told our group leader I needed to soak myself at the well to cool down even though we were supposed to leave right then. I refused, politely but firmly, and told him I needed to lower my body temperature. We left 30 minutes later, and didn’t miss anything we had planned to do.

Of course I felt embarrassed being so demanding — no one else asked for this. But I’d almost gotten heatstroke when I was Power’s age, while hiking alone in the Grand Canyon. I’d written about it and knew how serious it is.

It killed Matthew Power, a young, healthy man who had done many tough overseas assignments before.

We are human beings — not machines. We are fragile. We get ill.

We can die from making the wrong choices.

Pretending otherwise, that we are somehow invulnerable — that an extra few hours of rest or an additional night in even the most basic hotel to acclimate — is an undeserved or greedy sort of luxury is madness.

His death appalls me.

But reinforcing the idea that ignoring your own needs is the wisest and most admirable choice is even worse.


21 thoughts on “He worked himself to death

  1. Interesting. To honor work over our humanness seems completely absurd, yet we praise that notion as if it is some kind of extraordinary thing to do. We are human, and there is no bit of technology, modern tool or time, that can discount or overcome realities of our humanness. We are vulnerable and it seems to me that we must honor that.

    I don’t know the circumstances of this young writer’s death, and I am sorry to hear about what happened to him. I will not attempt to comment on the circumstances of his death. However, elements of your commentary are poignant. We must listen to the inner pangs of our body, our minds, and heed their call and cry. It seems to me there isn’t an opportunity, a paycheck, an experience in the world worth denying ourselves at least some amount of grace.

    1. Thanks very much for making the time to comment — and I appreciate that you share my perspective on this.

      Too many people now live in the “precariat” — terrified of losing their income, access to it or power — and will do anything, it seems, to keep work(ing.) I worked myself into three days of a hospital stay with pneumonia and a temperature of 104 in 2007. Never, ever, ever again. I now make far less money that I want — like 50% of my staff income from 2006. But I will not sacrifice my health to my work ever again. It is not worth it to me.

      1. Yes, I’ve been there as well, pushing my mind and body to its outer limits until my body just gave in and I became very ill and I too found myself in the hospital for several days. I too decided that for me it is not worth it, and I must find a way to passionately work and take good care of myself. I’ve found there is a bit of give and take daily.

        In reflection, I consider this quote by Carlos Castaneda: “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.

  2. melanievotaw

    Well said. This work as God is a strange aspect of our culture that many other cultures do not share. I was shocked, for example, when I discovered that Norwegians close up shop in the early afternoon on Fridays even though there are tons of tourists around ready to fork over their money.

    1. I consider myself fortunate (although out of step in gogogogogogogogoggodie America) that I grew up in Canada and lived in 3 other nations, all of which consider a life worth living to be more than work 24/7.

  3. I came close to dying last summer of a pulmonary embolism. I got on my first 8 hour org of a trip dehydrated and exhausted, far too worn out to walk around very couple of hours. At the first stop, my legs hurt. I ignored it. On my second stop, thank God the paramedics convinced me that if you can’t breathe, you can die, stupid and arrogant, that’s what it was. Maybe not what happened to this writer, but sometimes it’s not just money, it’s pride and we do nobody any good by dying.

    1. Thanks for sharing this.

      I think — for a variety of reasons — we can be too macho/a or embarrassed to say STOP: I need help. I am ill. I am exhausted. And anyone who fails to listen to someone who is truly in distress is a moron.

  4. this is such a sad statement on many levels. the competition, the environment of desperation, created by those who push the journalists, like machines, instead of humans, eking out every last drop of energy in exchange for as little money as they can get away with offering. what a sad loss. and i’m happy you stood up for what you needed when you needed it, regardless of pushback, and made it home safely once more. )

  5. On the subject of America’s work-crazed mindset, I completely agree that it’s a terrible tragedy to put your health so at risk for your work, no matter how meaningful it is to you. On a much less life-threatening scale in my stay-at-home mom gig, I have caught glimpses into the slow deterioration that many mothers experience. It’s so easy to shove a piece of Nutella-covered toast into my mouth for lunch rather than find the time to make a proper meal. I often don’t get enough sleep. Figuring out how to get to the doctor’s office if something is wrong is a huge chore. So I am trying to take steps not to sacrifice my health for my own and my family’s sake. I think sometimes it feels necessary to cut corners (skip a meal, skip all-important acclimatizing time) when we feel the job pressure, but it’s always important to remember the bigger picture.

    As to the issue of dying of heat stroke specifically, well, there is a lot I could say about this. My sister died of heat stroke, albeit in very different circumstances. She was one of the victims in self-help guru James Ray’s version of a sweat lodge in 2009. In any circumstance–a work situation, a self-help retreat, playing sports–there are physical realities that you can’t ignore no matter how determined you are, and in fact, our bodies often know more of our physical limitations than we are mentally aware of. It’s important to listen to what the body is telling us.

    1. I’m sorry for your sister’s death. What a terrible way to lose her.

      I think self-care, for reasons I really don’t understand well, is difficult for a lot of people to stand up for and do.

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Monday links | A Bit More Detail

  7. “Economic vulnerability” is a great way to put it. But being motivated by fear (fear of financial woes, etc.) never works. I wish I could say I’m wise enough to propose the pragmatic alternative.

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