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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Burned Reporter's Bravery Is Story Worth Telling

June 16, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

A lot of workers get hurt on the job. Slips. Falls. Carelessness. Occupational hazards. There once were so many signs hanging prominently--more like proudly--in industrial areas: "This Plant Has Gone --- Days Without an Accident." I always rued the day when that blank would be filled in again with the numeral 1.

You needn't be a 9-to-5er from Chernobyl or a Karen Silkwood to experience a life-threatening mishap in the workplace. A load of bricks once fell off a scaffold and onto my father at the factory where he worked. He could laugh about it later, but not while he was waiting for the ambulance.

On-the-job accidents seldom become public knowledge. Why? Because that's what they are, accidents, and they happen to everybody. It isn't usually a news-making event, unless a cop takes a bullet. (Or a basketball player stubs a toe.)

When a plain, everyday working American gets injured, as a rule, it doesn't generate much public interest. It's pretty much seen as just one of those things.

But that hasn't been the case with a woman named Adrienne Alpert, who got hurt on the job nearly a month ago.

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Rarely a day goes by in Southern California without a TV report on Alpert's condition, without an update on her progress.

Perhaps it's because she was on TV herself. Perhaps the media are more interested when a story involves someone from the media.

There's nothing terribly wrong with this; it's human nature. Everybody tends to look after his or her own.

Just as likely, though, is that the extraordinary circumstances of how Adrienne Alpert came to be injured contributed to the degree of interest in her fate.

Alpert isn't in a traditionally dangerous occupation. She doesn't risk life and limb for a living. She's just a working woman and mother of a 7-year-old who had no reason to believe that May 22--the day after her son turned 7--might be her last day on Earth.

A news reporter for Channel 7, Alpert was working on a routine story when her life itself became a dramatic one. Many by now are familiar with what happened. She was waiting inside a KABC van when its microwave antenna came dangerously close to some power lines, creating an explosive charge that sent a surge of electricity through the vehicle.

Alpert, 48, was nearly electrocuted.

She was rushed to the Grossman Burn Center in the Valley, where a team of doctors and nurses, like a scene right out of "ER," came rushing to her aid en masse. At one point, nine people, three of them surgeons, toiled for nearly two hours trying to save the severely burned patient.

A litany of horrors followed. Most of the left arm, amputated. Middle finger of the right hand, large toe of the left foot, both amputated. A few days later, the right leg, removed below the knee.

The chief of the burn center, Dr. Richard Grossman, spoke of what a "trouper" Alpert was in surgery, how brave she had been. The doctor said that when Alpert's husband was at her side, the veteran TV reporter was able to joke, "Get my makeup kit."

A few weeks later--just this Wednesday, in fact--husband Barry Paulk, near tears at times, said that his wife was already giving a lot of thought to returning to work.

"She's a hard lady to keep down," he said.

Few war correspondents have had to endure half of what Adrienne Alpert has. Not all combat vets, either. And all she was doing was waiting in Hollywood for a nice, safe news conference to start.

Has her story gained an uncommon amount of attention? Yes, it has. Have the details of her losses been a tad too graphic for some? Yes, they have. I have personally received complaints on both these scores.

But listen, if this woman can live with what's happened to her, then the rest of us can live with reading and hearing about it.

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More surgery is scheduled today for Alpert, who still isn't expected to leave the burn center for some time.

Mainly, however, the news was good this week for someone who usually reports it. Alpert's husband said Wednesday that where once her very survival was in question, "She's out of the woods in that regard."

Yes, working people everywhere do face everyday dangers, and not everybody's story is going to get told.

A woman's bravery and a 7-year-old boy who gets his mother back, though--trust me, that's a story worth telling.

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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