Catie Talarski is Senior Producer for “Where We Live” at WNPR in Connecticut. She is also a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Catie recently produced a documentary that pulls you straight into the everyday, emotional, and existential realities of two adults with Cystic Fibrosis. Have a listen, and read about her journey making this piece.
Before I worked in radio, I worked at the pulmonary clinic at Children’s Hospital Boston. That was where I met Brian Sercus, who was an adult CF patient. He was funny and had a lot of tattoos. Naturally, we became friends. Two years ago, his CF took a turn for the worse, forcing him to move home to New Jersey. I planned to visit him and wanted to record some of our conversations – about his life, living with the disease, and his decision not to pursue a lung transplant. At that point I had no idea what direction this would go, it just seemed important to do. And Brian agreed to be interviewed.
When I talked to one of the pulmonary doctors at CHB about my conversations with Brian, he suggested I also interview another one of his patients. “They both have such incredible insight into their plight and both are prolific writers,” he wrote in an email. “I think you should consider interviewing both of them to better understand their thought process.” And so I met Beth Peters. At the time, both Beth and Brian had blogs: Cystic Gal and A Sercus Life.
From there, the story started taking shape. Two 29-year-olds, both at the end stage of a chronic disease. One choosing transplant, one not. I wanted to explore this decision process. I spent more than a year documenting Beth and Brian through personal interviews and audio diaries. After Beth’s transplant, I interviewed her and her doctor together. Because Beth and Brian have CF, they couldn’t meet in person. I set up and recorded a “meeting” over the phone. I interviewed Brian’s mom, and his physical therapist. I was envisioning a very personal, non-narrated piece, so I wanted to have as much tape as possible. The reason I didn’t narrate was because I didn’t want my friendship with Brian to get in the way of the story. Beth and Brian are incredibly thoughtful and eloquent. I wanted to let them talk.
This was my first long-form documentary incorporating music. The production was very experimental. I created a story arc, cut up my transcriptions, organized them into themes, and did a lot of sitting on the floor surrounded by strips of paper.
This was an emotional project for me, partly because it was hard to document Brian’s failing health. As a 29-year-old myself, I spent a lot of time thinking about my own mortality. I was continuously inspired by Beth and Brian, and so grateful they were willing to share their stories.
Throughout my conversations with Brian, he was clear about not wanting to gamble on a transplant. As I was finishing up the documentary, Beth had her new lungs and was optimistic about her future. Brian’s health was continuing to decline. I thought the story would end with a question mark for Brian. But at his 30th birthday party, he announced that he had changed his mind. He wanted new lungs. Along with everyone else there, I was shocked, and ecstatic for him. His decision changed how the story would end. There was no longer a question mark. I went back to New Jersey for a final interview.
“Four Failing Lungs” aired on WNPR on Beth’s one year “transplant anniversary.”Brian passed away three weeks later, in the hospital waiting for new lungs.
I have to mention the documentary “My So-Called Lungs” produced by Radio Diaries. It’s about Laura Rothenberg, a college student with CF who gets a lung transplant. It is intimate and powerful and was always in the back of my mind as I was putting this together. I questioned whether what I was trying to do had sort of already been done. This past weekend I visited Brian’s mom, and we were talking about the episode of “Hearing Voices” that paired my documentary with “My So-Called Lungs.” She told me the show had special meaning for her because Brian and Laura had been friends. They had the same doctor in New York City, and would spend time together in the hospital (back when CF kids could do that.) I love that they knew each other. It is a small world we live in, and there are so many stories that deserve to be told.