It’s All Journalism: LA Times podcast unravels 15-year-old mystery in Room 20

A nameless man led Joanne Faryon on the journey of her life.

A reporter who’s worked in radio, TV and newspapers, Faryon heard about a man in California who had been living in a nursing home for 15 years, on life support, in a vegetative state. Worse yet, no one knew who he was.

“He was driving in a van trying to cross the border, the Mexico-U.S. border in the Southern California desert and he crashed,” she says. “The van was taken to a place called 66 Garage,” which was how the man was known for more than a decade.

Faryon had done some reporting on the man and his plight when she decided one day to quit her job and solve the mystery of the man’s identity.

But like so many of the best ideas, things took a series of turns. She tried pitching the man’s story, and the search for his name, as a magazine article, as a book, even as a series of podcasts, all to no avail.

Part of the struggle was that Faryon recorded everything, always, so when the time came to log her interviews for usable sound, she’d find long stretches of nothing interrupted by “hiss from an oxygen take, but in the middle you’d have this amazing interaction” with a member of the nursing home’s staff.

With the help of an editor, Sarah White, Faryon was able to produce the podcast Room 20, a story in which she unexpectedly became a character and a driver of change.

The story, as it unfolds, is about three main things.

“It’s about immigration and how a man basically loses his humanity when he crosses the border,” Faryon says. “It’s about the question of consciousness and how good medicine is, or isn’t, for determining consciousness. It’s about these end-of-life decisions we all face. When are we prolonging life or are we prolonging death? These choices are not necessarily reserved for old people — in a lot of cases, people who are on life support, particularly in California. … They’re people who’ve been in accidents, they’re in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. Someone along the way has made a decision to keep them alive (in a vegetative state) and they end up living sometimes for decades.”

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