Podcast: The Long Tail, the Lottery and “Being Mortal”


March 2, 2015

When famed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesotheliaoma, a rare form of cancer, in 1982, he examined the research on survival rates.

What Gould found wasn’t encouraging: median survival after receiving this particular diagnosis was only about eight months.

But, as Gould wrote in a now-famous essay, he found hope in the statistical variation surrounding that median: the “long tail” of people — not very many, but some — who survived for more than a decade. And ultimately, Gould became one of them, living for nearly 20 years before dying of an unrelated cancer in 2002.

Gould’s essay on aiming for the long tail has both inspired and troubled surgeon and bestselling author Dr. Atul Gawande ever since.

In fact, in his very first interview with filmmaker Tom Jennings for FRONTLINE’s recent Being Mortal documentary, Gawande told Jennings that every time he sees a patient with a terminal illness, Gould’s essay is in the back of his mind.

“The reality is, most of us will not get to win that lottery, and we don’t have a plan, or a discussion, about what might happen if [we] don’t,” Gawande says.

That frank conversation and many more are captured in Inside Being Mortal with Atul Gawande and Tom Jennings, an intimate new FRONTLINE podcast that’s narrated by Jennings and produced by Gary Covino:

The podcast gives listeners a new perspective on Being Mortal — exploring Jennings’ very personal motivations for making a film about end-of-life care, why so many doctors (including Gawande) struggle to discuss death openly and honestly with their patients, and what recognizing that not all patients will make it into the long tail means for a physician’s identity.

“Nothing is more threatening to who you think you are than a patient whose problems you can’t solve,” Gawande says.

Listen to this and other FRONTLINE podcasts any time on Soundcloud and iTunes.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

COVID-19 and the Most Litigated Presidential Election in Recent U.S. History: How the Lawsuits Break Down
A FRONTLINE analysis found that more than 400 election-related cases have been filed in the U.S. this year, making 2020 the most litigated presidential election in recent U.S. history — largely due to concerns involving COVID-19.
October 28, 2020
Trump Stokes Fear in the Suburbs, but Few Low-Income Families Ever Make It There
In an effort to appeal to suburban voters, President Trump has promised to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods. But in the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act was passed, families with low incomes have not flooded the suburbs.
October 28, 2020
Cheat Codes: Students Search For Shortcuts as Virtual Schooling Expands
Cheating has always been an issue in schools, but there is little getting in the way for students today. Shared answers have become even more accessible as districts have adopted or expanded their use of popular online learning programs.
October 23, 2020
As Purdue Pharma Agrees to Settle with the DOJ, Revisit Its Role in the Opioid Crisis
The proposed $8.3 billion settlement between Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, and the federal government is the latest in a battle over who is responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis, as covered by FRONTLINE in "Chasing Heroin" and "Opioids, Inc."
October 21, 2020