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

What’s the Status of Healthcare for Women in Afghanistan Under the Taliban?
Before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, many women and girls were already struggling to receive adequate healthcare. A year later, the situation has worsened, sources told FRONTLINE.
August 9, 2022
‘Say to the Whole World, They Don’t Let Us Talk’: Women Held for ‘Immoral Behavior’ at a Taliban Prison Speak Out
In the FRONTLINE documentary ‘Afghanistan Undercover,’ Ramita Navai reports the Taliban has jailed women for ‘immoral behavior’ and held them without trial. Watch an excerpt.
August 9, 2022
The Disconnect: Power, Politics and the Texas Blackout
In February 2021, days-long blackouts in Texas left millions shivering in the dark. Hundreds died. How has the Texas grid changed since then? And how has it changed how people think?
August 8, 2022
'You Feel Safe One Second and Then Boom': A Conversation With the Filmmakers of 'Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack'
The filmmakers of "Ukraine: Life Under Russia's Attack" spoke about documenting life under bombardment and why they felt it was important to bring this story to an American audience.
August 2, 2022