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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]


PLU alum says writing about the suffering in Africa changed him

By Katherine Hedland '88

A Bridge Too Far
A BRIDGE TOO FAR: Tom Paulson (RIGHT) in Nigeria’s central savanna region. While crossing a bridge with driver Inusa Obed (LEFT), the wood planking broke.

When Tom Paulson ’80 first heard about plans by Bill Gates to form a charitable foundation, he didn’t know it would turn into the most satisfying story in his journalism career.

“I had been reading, like everyone else, about Bill Gates giving this money away, and I hadn’t paid much attention, because the numbers are so big they don’t register,” said Paulson, a science and medical reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

But he kept hearing more, and when in late 1999 Gates gave $750 million to create a global vaccination fund, he started asking questions. Experts told him such a commitment was unprecedented.

“This was historic,” Paulson said. “Nobody was paying any attention to it.”

So he decided he wanted to tell the story through the people who were really suffering and those who were benefiting from Gates’ initiatives.

He and P-I photographer Mike Urban spent a month in West Africa last year, and several months later published a compelling, often heart-wrenching series on the state of health there.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” Paulson said. “ I think it changed me. I came back realizing we have nothing to complain about. The people are amazing, they live on nothing and they still know how to have fun. It’s a real testament to the human spirit. It makes me feel bad about the things I do complain about.”

Paulson saw the beauty of Gambia and the horror of disease there. He went from staying in a luxury hotel in Nigeria—the same one President Clinton stayed at—to sleeping in a tent that had more bugs and lizards on the inside than the outside.

The pair went to Nigeria to examine the longterm problems of a corrupt government and the health problems caused by contaminated water, mostly the awful Guinea worm, which can be several feet long. One man had 80 worms, which have to be extracted by pulling them through the skin.

In The Gambia, he went to a research laboratory that is working on a malaria vaccine, and on the Ivory Coast, he examined a vaccination program. A few weeks after he left, political unrest erupted there, possibly setting back health missions.

“For me, it’s the most important thing I’ve ever written about,” said Paulson, who earned his degree in chemistry at PLU, thinking he’d go to medical school. Instead he worked as a carpenter for a few years before earning a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. He landed at the P-I in 1987. “What’s mind boggling to me is how little attention it’s gotten.”

Paulson credits his science and writing professors at PLU with giving him the foundation for his career. “They made science fun enough that I actually wanted to write about it, and their enthusiasm for writing and exploring ideas got me excited.”

“I have decided that’s kind of unusual,” he said. don’t take my PLU education for granted.”

Paulson hopes his work will bring more attention and coverage to global health. Dr. William Foege ‘57, the foundation’s senior medical adviser, says he has evidence Paulson’s work was noticed.

At a meeting Foege attended in New York, he saw people reviewing copies of Paulson’s story and asked where they came from. Jimmy Carter had sent them over.

Paulson is gratified by that, but said he’s by no means done with the story. His years of experience show him the work of the Gates Foundation might be the biggest thing ever in global health. He hopes to travel to other developing countries to evaluate the effects of the initiative.

“I’m going to keep writing about this,” Paulson said. “I’m going to see this through.”

To read Paulson’s series on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, go to encore!

Pacific Lutheran University Scene
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