The Sick Days: Part 11

It was the Last Drink on the Table

The rush of daily journalism faces off against the need for a daily dose of prednisone as a cub reporter tries to make it from the all-male east bureau to the doors of One Yonge

By Shelley Page

SICK DAYS LOGOA tip came in that had front-page potential, handled right.

I begged the bureau chief—who held a scrap of paper covered in sketchy details as if it was a treasure map—to let me check it out.

It was my first week as a full-time reporter at the Toronto Star and I needed something out of the ordinary.

As I raced down Brimley Rd. towards the Scarborough Bluffs, the steering wheel of the 1978 blue and white ‘Star car,’ quivered like I was pushing a power mower. I had to keep pulling to the left to keep it heading straight, straight toward the lake.

The tipster, Bill Shillabeer, waited at Bluffers Park, a sandy beach beneath the towering bluffs.

“Where is it?” I asked, breathlessly. A reporter must strike a balance between caring and ghoulishness if the subject is going to share.

Grimly, the man pointed to a smudge moving erratically near the shore.

“I call it Six-Pack,” he explained.

Excellent, I thought.

As we approached, I could see a young Canada goose with plastic rings—the type used for carrying six-packs of beer—wound tightly around its head and neck.

Shillabeer, a veteran bird watcher, said if Six-Pack wasn’t set free it would die of strangulation. He was keeping a “lonely vigil” at the shore in the hopes of getting close enough to free the bird, while waiting for the only ‘net gun’ in Metro Toronto to be repaired so the bird could be caught.

I truly felt bad for the bird. I did. But wounded animal stories with nicknames are front-page gold.

Driving back, I turned potential ledes over in my head, rhyming ‘goose’ with ‘noose,’ ‘bird’ with ‘absurd,’ and ‘duck’ and ‘out of luck.’

I truly felt bad for the bird. I did. But wounded animal stories with nicknames are front-page gold.

I settled on this lede: “A Canada goose has a ring about the collar that could be deadly.”

The front-page headline the next day crowed about a goose about to be “cooked.”

That first fall, I covered an illegal strike at a Canada Post sorting plan and wrote stories about Gary Rangasamy, a 14-year-old boy with elephant man’s disease, getting his artificial arm after life-saving surgery. I followed the case of bounty hunters from Texas who’d been arrested after illegally trying to nab a fugitive in Scarborough. And I covered the murder of one woman and the discovery of skeletal remains of a girl who’d run away from home.

Years later, as writing coach at the Ottawa Citizen, I mentored the yearlong and summer interns. Most confided that they longed to write for magazines and cover overseas conflict. I told them that they had to learn to write the smallest, most tedious stories extremely well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know how to write the big ones, when they came along.

Back at the Star, I had an uninspired plan: report and write my way out of the east bureau.

I’d been told I’d be there for two years. The other two students that I was hired with, who’d first been summer students a year before me, had to stay in the bureaus for a year.

But Paul Watson was called downtown from the west bureau in a matter of months. (He would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize while at the Star, work for the LA Times as a war correspondent, before returning to the Star and eventually resigning in controversy). The other student was in the north bureau. The son of a well-known Star editor, he was a very talented writer, but seemed to lack a killer instinct.

Meanwhile, word had already reached me in the east bureau that some reporters and editors down at One Yonge felt I’d taken a job away from a deserving candidate (who could golf!), probably because I was attractive. Or just that I was a girl. There was an implication that I’d somehow used my sexuality to get a job.

Thinking about it made me heartsick.

The last female student hired on general assignment was Laurie Monsebraaten, three years earlier, and she was at Toronto city hall. Rosie DiManno and Heather Bird, the two women on general assignment at One Yonge, were incredibly able and fierce. I hadn’t yet had the nerve or reason to talk to them.

The east bureau was all male, except for reporter Rita Daly, a decade older, full of good advice, friendship, and also very pregnant. She’d been hired from a local Scarborough newspaper and at the time, One Yonge was a distant mirage that she wasn’t sure she wanted to, or would ever reach.

Tapering terror

In November, it had been 18 months since I’d been diagnosed with systemic lupus—pleurisy, pericarditis and crippling arthritis —and prescribed a mind-blowing 80 milligrams of prednisone.

It is a miracle drug and had succeeding in stopping the runaway inflammation attacking my joints and organs. The harsh side effects on my mood, weight, blood pressure and skin, which ripped, seemed a very small ransom.

By the time I saw my new rheumatologist, in his tiny office heaped with patient files at Mount Sinai Hospital, I was at 10 mg of prednisone. By then, my face had lost its roundness. The only reminder that I’d been sick was pain when I breathed deeply, and a stabbing sensation when I sneezed that made me gasp, because of the scar tissue and hardening in the lining of my lungs.

The rheumatologist said the next decreases must be managed carefully. Prednisone stops the body’s production of cortisol, the stress hormone. When you taper down 7.5 mg, you’re at the equivalent of what the body normally produces. Once you go below that dosage, you hope your dormant adrenal glands start to produce cortisol again.

It’s a precarious process. You can have a flare of your disease during this period, or you can have withdrawal symptoms that mimic the disease.

Go slowly and reduce stress, he repeated.

When I’d first been prescribed the prednisone, I hadn’t been told about the side effects, the tapering or its risks. Each new phase was a new lesson. I understand I couldn’t be told everything but I hated being constantly ignorant about my disease and its treatment.

Go slowly and reduce stress.

Those words were my mantra, as I carefully moved through the world on that reduced dose of prednisone. And I had those words in my head when I went to my first Star Christmas party at a businessman’s club downtown.

I hardly knew anyone, so hung around the edges of the party, which featured a big haired 70s rock band.

Near the end the night, I ended up sitting with the hires from the last couple of years. So me, and a bunch of guys.

One of the hires, who was drunk, started trash talking me. He slurred, “the only reason you got hired is you’re a long legged tit and they wanted to keep you around to look at.” He spit when he spoke.

That was a bitch-slap.

“Well, everyone knows you only got hired because your dad is the sports editor,” I responded, with equal disdain.

I picked up the last glass of beer on the table and threw it in his face.

Then I walked out of the party.



The Sick Days continues in  Wednesdays and Sundays in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.

THE EX-PRESS, October 28, 2015



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