Helping by communicating
On October 17th last year, Living with Cystic Fibrosis awarded the Michel-Paquette prize to the journalist Harold Gagné. For several years now, this kind-hearted man has been supporting the cause of organ donation through his humane and respectful reports. He is also an important ally for the cystic fibrosis community.
Having been the subject of one of his stories, I now feel very privileged to be able to turn the tables and become the interviewer to learn more about this great reporter and great individual.
Mr. Gagné, your love for media goes way back… How did you get interested in this field?
I was born in Gaspésie in 1959, but spent much of my childhood and adolescence on the Côte-Nord, in Baie-Comeau and Sept-îles, where I fell in love with radio early on.
The first time I walked into a radio studio, as part of a preschool activity, I was 5 years old. I was mesmerised by the environment and the fact that you could speak to thousands of people through a microphone. I came home and said to my mother: “This is what I want to do when I grow up!”
How did you get started in the media business?
A few years later, I had the chance to get involved in the students’ radio during high school and college. At the same time, I found a small weekend job announcing the specials on the overhead speaker in a department store. It was there that I met a real radio host who suggested I come work at CKCN Sept-îles radio station.
I started out playing records during the night and then hosted the evening service. I played the latest hits for the young people who called in with special requests.
I then made the painful choice to leave this fascinating but uncertain and low-paying area to pursue studies in Politics at the Université Laval de Québec, where I stayed for one year. I loved the course. I had very good grades but didn’t have enough money to continue. Then I came back to radio at Sept-îles where I worked for 6 years. I left radio hosting to go into public affairs and journalism. I conducted hundreds of interviews with Provincial and Federal politicians, as well as very famous artists.
When did you start your career with the TVA network?
I got noticed by the management of the television station CFER TVA Rimouski, across the River, and was hired in 1986. It was there that I learned all the basics of television reporting. Then in 1994, I decided to try a new experience by becoming a news editor at CHEM TVA Trois-Rivières.
Four years later, I was missing the field. So I returned to reporting, this time at TVA Montréal. I have been there since 1998. In August 2016, I’ll have been a journalist for the TVA network for 30 years.
During my years in journalism, I added two other certificates to my certificate in Politics by taking night and weekend classes: one in administration and one in management.
Did you always know that journalism was what you wanted to do?
I’ve always been drawn to many other professions. After a short stint as an officer cadet in the Canadian Armed Forces in 1979, I almost studied Criminology. I dreamed of being part of the military police and intelligence service, but destiny had other plans for me. There was no opening in this area and I wasn’t keen on military life. It’s a whole other world.
I also think I could have been a lawyer.
You have also written three books dealing with quite sensitive topics. Could you briefly tell us about these?
When I was younger, I told myself that one day I would write articles – perhaps a book – but it seemed almost unreal. That was until one day, in 2006, when I conducted a televised interview with Monique Lépine, the mother of Marc Lépine, the Polytechnique killer. The 30-minute program was far too short to answer all the questions. Mrs. Lépine had been hidden from the media for 17 years and this was the first time she was confiding in a reporter. She was seeking the truth, what it was that caused her son to murder several women. We decided to meet with the witnesses of the time: Marc’s friends, police officers and teachers. In 2008, I wrote a book that summarised our meetings and the life of Monique Lépine. It was entitled VIVRE.
Two years later, I chose to write another book on the children of the DPJ (Youth Protection Directorate): À quoi ça sert de grandir?
I feel particularly passionate about this cause. I can’t accept children being abused or abandoned, or having serious problems because they’re part of the wrong crowd.
I’m probably the journalist who has visited Quebec’s youth centers the most. I have interviewed dozens and dozens of children and teenagers who have been scarred for life. They also told their stories in various series of reports that were aired on TVA for 10 years before the holidays in order to raise money to buy them gifts.
Then, three years ago, I thought I would publish one last book, this time on the elderly: Laissez-nous vieillir! In it, I mention my grandmother, who died from cancer all too young, at the age of 63. She had a profound impact on my life. I also discuss palliative care issues and elder abuse. As long as families are not confronted with the diseases of elderly parents, with putting them into nursing homes, or with their death, they usually care very little about ageing. We live in a society that glorifies youth and prefers to stay well away from all this subject. But soon, there will be more elderly people in Quebec than young people. Then, we’ll have to start talking about it.
How did you start to get involved with sufferers of Cystic Fibrosis?
Even if I haven’t written a book on organ donation, I have been really interested in it since Valérie Mouton came close to death in July 2004. Her father, Denis, had brought TVA’s attention to the importance of organ donation. Together with my colleague Claude Charron, I found myself in a room of the Hôtel-Dieu in Montréal, listening to Valerie, exhausted, urging for donor cards to be signed. A few days later, a miracle happened. A donor was found.
I remember hearing the good news over the phone directly from her father. With my cameraman, we jumped into our mobile for remote assignments and reached the Hôtel-Dieu a few minutes later. She left the scene by ambulance to undergo her double lung transplant at Notre-Dame hospital. On arrival, ignoring security guards, we took Valerie’s picture with her thumb in the air, already triumphant even before her operation. The powerful video gave courage to many people waiting for a transplant. It meant life rather than the end.
This meeting with Valerie and her family has had a profound impact on me and later allowed me to come into contact with other patients with cystic fibrosis. I wanted to help in my own way!
You have followed the progress of several people after their transplant… A great deal of success stories! Sadly, some of them lost their fight. Among others, I think of Laura Leblanc who died shortly after her transplant. How do you react to these losses of life?
Laura, a young woman of 19 years from Saguenay, died in January 2014 after waiting far too long for a lung donor. She will always be in my thoughts. I was convinced that she was going to get the better of cystic fibrosis. There were complications after her transplant at Notre-Dame hospital. I could only imagine the sadness of her parents and sister when she passed away.
In the past, I had already been greatly interested in kidney, liver and heart transplants. At the beginning of the 2000s, I became friends with a gentleman who was around fifty years old and had to undergo a heart transplant at the Royal-Victoria Hospital. I made him promise to call me when he found a donor, and this is what he did one morning at about 4 a.m. He was so happy! Then, in the afternoon, his daughter contacted me to thank me and tell me he had died. That greatly upset me.
This is another reason why I keep talking about organ donation. Had he found the perfect donor? Could he have been saved with better public awareness? That will always haunt me.
Organ donation is the key focus of many of your stories. What impact do you hope to have?
I hope that listeners will never forget the positive stories – and sadly sometimes also the negative ones – and that they will reflect on the importance of organ donation. The choice must not be imposed onto them, but discussions and actions should be gradually brought forward to save more people awaiting new organs.
In the last few days, I’ve been close to a 5-year old girl who desperately needs a heart to survive. I imagine the anxiety and determination of her parents. We need to talk about this publicly, even if it is a very sensitive issue, to obtain a greater number of donors. This way she can be saved. I am sure of it.
What do you learn from your meetings with people living with Cystic Fibrosis?
All these meetings make me appreciate life more. The patients and their families demonstrate courage that perhaps I couldn’t. They are immensely important in my eyes. They all have values and desires to build a better world, a society where one day, we can save those in need of a gift of life!
What are your plans for the future?
As a journalist, I now hope that hospitals and doctors will allow us to show people what a transplant is really about, with the process, decisions, hesitations, victories and failures it involves. For 10 years, we have greatly focused on emotions, on the testimonies of patients awaiting transplants, and on the importance of signing donor cards and talking about it with families. We must now explain what we’re really talking about using images, while at the same time putting a system in place that encourages healthcare workers to do everything, everywhere in Quebec, to obtain the highest number of donors.
We have already gone a long way. In 2004, when Valérie Mouton received her transplant, the public relations department of Notre-Dame hospital criticized her father for providing me a video of his daughter in her hospital room thanking those who prayed for her. Ten years later, a doctor told me that these images and reports had been a catalyst for Transplant Québec and for the cause of cystic fibrosis.
Sometimes we have to push the limits of the system to achieve ambitious goals. This is what I will continue to do, while respecting the choice of individuals. I am convinced that donating one’s organs at the end of one’s life is a personal decision that must not be imposed but simply considered.