.Celebrity secrets and what we owe the dead

Two weeks ago, the Pacific Sun and the Bohemian published an article (“A Local Remembers Sinéad,” July 27) about singer and activist Sinead O’Connor, who died last month at age 56. 

The writer identified herself as a night shift caregiver to O’Connor, seemingly having no qualms about revealing her association with a “secret client.” O’Connor, the writer said, had undergone an undisclosed procedure and was recovering in a “rehab room.”

A description of the singer’s compromised physical appearance made it into the article a few times, as did the writer’s claim that O’Connor’s celebrity status made her want to protect her client.

“Each of us, in our vulnerable moments, deserves privacy and dignity,” the writer stated.

Yet, in the article, I don’t think the writer protected O’Connor. In addition to the unflattering comments about the way O’Connor looked, she also made reference to—but didn’t elaborate on—“gory details,” apparently regarding the procedure.

The caginess about the procedure and the rehab room left me wondering whether O’Connor had back surgery and was in a physical therapy rehab facility or if she had undergone electroshock therapy at a mental health rehab center. Not that I’m entitled to know.

The piece, clearly intended to be an homage to O’Connor, worked on a certain level. The writer compared her challenging life experiences with O’Connor’s, giving the reader a window into why the outspoken performer had such an impact on her.

But I couldn’t get past the fact that a caregiver violated the trust of a patient.

Caregivers see us when we’re weak, when we need help, when we must turn over some control to another person.

O’Connor entrusted her care, her privacy, her personal health information to a professional caregiver. I don’t think that her death should void the expectation of confidentiality.

I asked the writer about the issue. Frankly, I was unimpressed by her defense.

“I will say that I didn’t share anything that isn’t already public knowledge,” the writer told me. “It’s all on Wikipedia. She has revealed all the things that were alluded to in the piece.”

O’Connor certainly did share her struggles—from surviving child abuse to a difficult hysterectomy to multiple suicide attempts—with the public. That was her prerogative.

However, I firmly believe that a caregiver should never disclose observations about a patient recovering in a rehab room, especially in newspapers that remain on the internet. While O’Connor is no longer living, her children and other loved ones are still here.

To be clear, I would disagree with a butler, housekeeper or chauffeur broadcasting private details about their famous employer. Heck, I’m nobody, and I don’t even want my handyman telling my neighbors about my messy hair or unkempt home. It’s nobody else’s business unless I deem it so.

Of course, the Pacific Sun and the Bohemian had a role in this scenario. I asked my editor why he published the O’Connor piece. The privacy issue didn’t occur to him, he said. It didn’t occur to other people either. I know because I asked quite a few friends about it.

Interestingly, most of my millennial and Gen Z buddies were fine with the article. They told me that since O’Connor shared her troubles with the world, the writer didn’t cross the line.

Folks in the 55+ age group and those with health problems agreed with me. Health care providers, too, frowned on the caregiver/writer providing personal information about O’Connor.

Perhaps my younger friends will feel differently when they get a few gray hairs. As our population ages, the need for caregivers will increase.

Caregivers provide vital services in hospitals, rehabs, assisted living facilities and our homes. They feed us, wipe our tushes and tuck us into bed. While there are laws in place regulating a patient’s privacy, not every situation is covered.

We need to set some ground rules about what is permissible for a caregiver to divulge when they leave us, whether we’re Grammy winners or just regular Joes needing assistance with our bodies or mental health.

Rule number one: What happens in the room stays in the room. Two: Death doesn’t negate rule number one.

And if a caregiver breaks the rules, the media should carefully consider whether to publish their revelations.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

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