A Family of Friends

In 1992 the Leukemia Society of America solicited bids from video producers interested in producing a short promotional video for the organization’s family support group program. My bid was unusual, a representative of the society told me, because I intended to use real people, not actors.

Could I guarantee the people I interviewed would say the “right” things? Short answer: No, I couldn’t.

The programming and outreach staff at the Leukemia Society talked it over and decided to take a chance. Maybe real people confronting the uncertainties of cancer would bring a sense of immediacy and realism that was missing from many of the group’s other educational videos.

Roger Kahl headshot.
Roger Kahl, battling chronic myelogenous leukemia, talks about the importance of peer support in an on-camera interview.

And so, in the spring of 1992, co-producer Daal Praderas and I set up our video gear in a large meeting room at the Cancer Support Community in Redondo Beach, where we met a dozen members of a family support group—real people facing real questions with no textbook answers. They discussed the upsides and downsides of bone marrow transplants, shared the effects and side effects of various medications, and talked about the difficulties of maintaining normal family routines in the face of a life-threatening illness.

They shared a bond that far exceeded friendship. They were, in the best sense of the word, family.

Retired El Segundo police detective Roger Kahl, nearing the end of his nine-year battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia, had been hospitalized just a week before we filmed the meeting. He was determined to participate in the video production, sitting down with us under two 1,000 watt tungsten lights to explain the importance of the support group in his life. “There are good days and bad,” he said. “And sometimes it’s good to hear a friend’s voice. Especially somebody who knows what you’re going through.”

Watch the Video

After the interviews and other footage had been shot, I sent a script to my clients at the Leukemia Society for review. That touched off several days of negotiations over the words we would use to describe Roger’s battle with leukemia. Some of the staff members were alarmed that the script included a description of Roger lying in a hospital room, “near death.”

“We never use the word death,” a program manager told me. “We don’t want people watching the video to think about death.”

In the end, they agreed to leave the sentence as written, acknowledging that we weren’t really putting ideas in people’s heads, just being honest.

Roger viewed a rough cut of the video a few days before he died in May 1992. He was 51.

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