Sun medical writer Sugg wins Pulitzer for beat reporting

Diana K. Sugg, a medical reporter for The Sun, won journalism's highest honor yesterday for a series of articles ranging from stillbirths to sepsis to the controversial practice of hospitals allowing families to comfort loved ones in emergency rooms.

The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Sugg for beat reporting. It was the paper's 15th Pulitzer, following awards in 1997 and 1998 for feature writing and investigative reporting.

Two other entries by The Sun were Pulitzer finalists this year. Reporters Jim Haner, John B. O'Donnell and Kimberly A.C. Wilson were finalists in the explanatory journalism category for their series, "Justice Undone," which investigated Baltimore's high rate of unsolved homicides. The paper's coverage of the Beltway snipers was a finalist in the breaking news category.

"There were a lot of great entries, but everybody felt that her [Sugg's] writing really brought together the sense of technology and humanity that exists with the issue of medicine but is often hard to convey in journalism," said Tom Rosenstiel, a juror on the Pulitzer beat reporting committee and director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "There was a haunting quality to her writing that, when you are sitting there reading literally over 1,000 stories over the course of a couple of days, it takes something special to jump out and stick with you. Her writing does that."

Sugg's stories put flesh on sensitive medical issues and captured the drama and personal struggles that unfold each day when people fight for their lives.

"Those stories were really born in my heart," Sugg, 37, told a newsroom gathering of reporters, editors, executives and family members.

The people she interviewed revealed parts of their lives that "inspired me to go on. It is a privilege to tell their stories. It is an honor."

In February 2002, Sugg wrote about the practice of admitting family members into the emergency room while loved ones fight for their lives. She described the death of 11-year-old Ryan King with his mother at his side.

"As doctors struggled to get intravenous lines into his collapsing veins, injected him with drugs and took turns doing manual compressions on his chest, his mother climbed under staffers' arms and between IV poles. She cradled Ryan's head and put her cheek against his.

"'Mommy's here,' she said."

In a March 24 article, Sugg investigated why, despite technical medical advances, a perplexingly high number of stillbirths exists.

"In a time when surgeons can operate on fetuses, when parents can select the sex of their offspring, when physicians can screen embryos for genetic diseases, medicine has no answer for stillbirths. They are one of the last, great mysteries of obstetrics."

An article in August looked at how doctors break the news to friends and family when a loved one has died.

She told the story through two Maryland Shock Trauma Center doctors, Carnell Cooper and Steven Johnson, who broke the news to a woman that her boyfriend, who was beaten with a baseball bat, had died.

"Johnson put his arm around her, and she fell into him. On her other side, Cooper leaned closer and put his hand on her shoulder. He could feel her screams reverberating through his chest."

In addition to The Sun, winners included The Boston Globe, which received the Pulitzer for public service reporting for "courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests" in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Los Angeles Times , a paper that is owned by The Sun's parent, Tribune Co., won three Pulitzers, and the Chicago Tribune, another paper in the chain, captured the award for editorial writing.

The Washington Post won three Pulitzers, including one by Stephen Hunter, a former Sun movie critic, for criticism.

Reporters, editors and executives at The Sun crowded around Sugg as she waited by a computer terminal for the final word about the Pulitzers. It arrived shortly after 3 p.m., and the newsroom erupted in cheers and applause.

Sugg wiped tears from her eyes and hugged her parents and the 18 relatives who attended the celebration.

Champagne corks popped, and some ricocheted off the ceiling near the City Desk - a fitting tribute to someone who is cherished by her colleagues.

"I can't believe it," Sugg said.

William K. Marimow, The Sun's editor and senior vice president, said Sugg's Pulitzer is "recognition of great reporting, great writing and great journalism."

"Not only has Diana mastered the ABCs of medicine, but even more important, she has taken the time to understand and empathize with people who are grappling with the most sensitive, delicate and thorny issues of life and death. It is that empathy which inspires people to trust her and share their stories."

Rebecca L. Corbett, who edited the winning articles, said Sugg is "an incredibly dedicated reporter who is extraordinarily thorough, just fascinated by her subject, learning new things and finding new stories."

In many ways, Sugg's empathy for the people she wrote about came from her experiences as a patient.

A graduate of Villanova University, Sugg earned a master's degree in journalism on a Kiplinger Fellowship at Ohio State University. She worked at The Spartanburg Herald-Journal in South Carolina and the Associated Press in Philadelphia.

In 1990, while covering the crime beat at the Sacramento Bee, Sugg collapsed. Since then, she has struggled with neurological conditions, including seizures and stroke.

Sugg joined The Sun in 1995 as a medical reporter.

"I was living ... my own personal health story," she said. "I think that did give me more compassion."

Despite her illness, Sugg was unrelenting when it came to her work, Corbett said. Even when she was sick, she asked reporters to cart files to her home so she could work on articles.

But her illness, Sugg said, helped her realize that she couldn't do every story that she wanted, that she had to pick the best pieces. Her ideas came from gritty beat reporting - talking to countless sources and reading. Her idea for the stillbirths article came from the last line of a news release.

Some of the stories "haunted me," Sugg told her colleagues.

She said she never expected to win a Pulitzer and had always thought of herself as an underdog reporter.

"I appreciate everybody who hung in here with me," Sugg said. "I was just somebody who worked hard and had a heart."