The End of Life:  Helen Payne

Helen Payne

NPR’s All Things Considered


Bull Run, Manassas, VA     Photo: Rob Shenk/Flickr

He was good to all of us—all of his children & all of mine, and we just lived happy.

In November of 1997, we aired a week-long series of pieces on the End of Life on NPR’s All Things Considered. It was the kick-off of a year-long series on the subject that aired across all the network’s news magazines. There were conversations with clinicians and medial ethicists, and a profile of a physician who was trying to change the way the dying were cared for in the United States.

Helen Payne’s story was part of that series. Linda Wertheimer and I spent several months with Helen and her family as Helen came to the end of her life. They allowed us to document those final months of her life. Their generosity was remarkable and produced a fine piece of reporting on the subject of palliative care.

Linda Wertheimer’s sensitivity is evident throughout the piece. And so is her acumen as a reporter. Witness these two moments.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: And how did you meet Mr. Payne?
HELEN PAYNE: Oh, at a dance, and my brother, he decided he was going to find a friend for me. And this guy was in the Army with him — my brother. That’s how I met him, on the dance floor. So we courted around and finally I turned up with a baby for him. So we went on and got married. That was another marriage.
HELEN PAYNE: So that’s where we stayed for 47 years.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Forty-seven years.
HELEN PAYNE: Until he passed; he passed.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Well now, was he a good dancer?
HELEN PAYNE: Oh, my Lord yes. He could dance, but I couldn’t ’cause I hadn’t been used to no dancing. My daddy was a preacher, and we wasn’t allowed to do nothing like that. So — but he was a dancer.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Was he good to your children?
HELEN PAYNE: Oh Lord, yes. He was good to all of us — all of his children and all of mine, and we just lived happy.

Asking “Was he a good dancer?” was — in my opinion — a sign of someone who knows how to have a conversation with another human being, and someone with the good (clinical? pastoral? journalistic?) sense to do life review with someone as they near their death.

Writing for the Ear and the Eye

The second moment I’d point out to you is Linda’s description of Helen as she walked down the banks of Bull Run for the baptism.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: The baptism was in Bull Run, a creek in Virginia — the Civil War battle of the same name was fought nearby. Ignoring her daughters’ pleas, Helen wore the red high-heeled shoes which matched her red and blue dress, and one of her many fancy hats. With help from Dee Dee and me, she slowly walked down the hill to the creek.

I have played this section of the piece for journalism students for years now. Several minutes later, when the scene is over, I ask the students what color Helen’s shoes were.

They always remember.

It’s a fine example of the sort of vivid small detail that’s the hallmark of good writing for the radio.

NPR’s Online Infancy

The radio series on the End of Life gave me the excuse to try something new at NPR. We augmented the radio reporting with a pretty extensive build-out on the (then) brand new website for NPR. It was a grand experiment that, it turns out, not only provided a benefit for listeners in the first instance and gave the radio reports some shelf life that have proved useful for many years since, but foresaw the way that broadcasters would stretch into the online realm to augment their on-air reporting.

It was 1997. This was NPR’s first venture in that regard.

We provided transcripts of all the pieces in the series, readings, a bibliography, and a list of clinical resources for patients and their care-givers. Sadly, this site no longer exists at

But it did teach me to choose urls with care:

I have Ellen Weiss and the late MJ Bear to thank for this collaboration. We were on to something here. And I’m proud of the early work we did for NPR on the web.


Paynes Creek Primitive Baptist Church, organized 1804

Helen Payne’s story was recorded and mixed by Linda Mack, edited by Jonathan Kern, and produced by Sara Sarasohn. I was the Supervising Senior Producer. The Executive Producer was Ellen Weiss.