When Johns Hopkins Medicine disclosed last week that it had terminated its discredited black lung unit, those of us who had a role in the Center for Public Integrity’s Pulitzer-winning 2013 series, “Breathless and Burdened,” felt no small amount of satisfaction.
The project, conceived and flawlessly executed by reporter Chris Hamby, now with BuzzFeed, represents the best of what some might call old-school investigative journalism. It yielded immediate results: activities within the Johns Hopkins black lung unit were suspended two days after a Center-ABC News report showed that it essentially was an appendage of the coal industry, its doctors blaming even obvious cases of black lung on anything but coal dust.
The U.S. Department of Labor set about revising its policies to ensure that miners’ claims weren’t being denied on the basis of discredited medical information. Legislation to reform the federal benefits system was introduced.
Most important, sick miners and their families felt that they finally were being heard. When Illene Barr, whose husband, Junior, died of black lung in October 2011, learned that Hopkins had shuttered its black lung unit, she was elated. The unit, led by Dr. Paul Wheeler, had twice opined that Junior Barr’s lung problems had been caused either by tuberculosis or a disease called histoplasmosis, triggered by a fungus found in bird and bat droppings. An autopsy revealed that Barr did, in fact, have black lung; only then was his wife awarded benefits.
“I think it’s wonderful, the work you all have done,” Ms. Barr said by telephone from her home in Sophia, West Virginia. “That’s what’s been needed. It’s a good shot in the arm for the miners.”