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A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion
A clinic such as this, where countless uninsured line up at dawn for free medical care, convinced one man to quit his Cigna job.
June 27th, 2012
01:46 PM ET

A health care 'Judas' recounts his conversion

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When Wendell Potter first saw them, he froze.

“It felt like touching an electrical fence,” he says. “I remember tearing up and thinking, how could this be real.”

Thousands of them had lined up under a cloudy sky in an open field. Many had camped out the night before. When their turns came, doctors treated them in animal stalls and on gurneys placed on rain-soaked sidewalks.

They were Americans who needed basic medical care. Potter had driven to the Wise County Fairgrounds in Virginia in July 2007 after reading that a group called Remote Area Medical, which flew American doctors to remote Third World villages, was hosting a free outdoor clinic.

Potter, a Cigna health care executive who ate from gold-rimmed silverware in corporate jets, says that morning was his “Road to Damascus” experience.

“It looked like a refugee camp,” Potter says. “It just hit me like a bolt of lightning. What I was doing for a living was making it necessary for people to resort to getting care in animal stalls.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is a colossal legal and political issue. For Potter, though, the issue became a crisis of faith.

For the last three years, Potter has been one of the most visible supporters of President Barack Obama’s health care legislation. He has testified before Congress, appeared on countless talk shows and written a tell-all book on the health care industry called "Deadly Spin." With his Southern drawl and mild professorial manner, he has been described as a health care industry “Judas” in some media accounts.

Yet none of the media coverage of Potter has explored what drove his conversion - his faith. Potter was raised as a Southern Baptist in Kingsport, Tennessee, where he says his parents instilled in him an appreciation for helping others.

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He says the New Testament is filled with Jesus providing universal health care - he healed the poor and outcast.

“Christians needed to be reminded of what Jesus did,” Potter says.  “It was important to him for people to have access to healing care. That’s what he did. A lot of people of faith lose sight of that.”

A health care hit man

Potter says he lost sight of that because the health care issue was an abstraction to him when he worked at Cigna as a public relations executive. Part of his job was to snuff out stories in the media that made the health care industry look bad.

But his visit to that free clinic in Virginia that July morning shook him. In a column that he wrote for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, where he works as a senior analyst, he wrote:

“Until that day, I had been able to think, talk and write about the U.S. health care system and the uninsured in the abstract, as if real-life human beings were not involved.”

Yet even after that visit to the clinic, Potter says, he still stayed with his Cigna job. He had a son and a daughter, a six-figure salary, bonuses.  He felt trapped even as he resumed his job.

“It was always gnawing at me,” he says of the experience at the clinic.

There was another reason he couldn’t leave his job.  It was his identity.

Wendell Potter was moved by his faith to quit his Cigna job.

“Our egos are tied to our jobs even if the jobs we’re doing are not what we thought we were going to be doing,” he says. “Our jobs, to a certain extent, help define who we are.”

Potter found a new source of identity - his faith. He read the Bible and found particular solace in the New Testament book of Philippians, where the Apostle Paul advises Christians to “cast all their anxiety” on God. He also read “Profiles in Courage” to fortify his resolve.

He finally quit, and eventually became one of the most visible advocates for health care reform.

“I felt that if I were on my death bed and looked back on my life and realized that I had not taken this risk to do the right thing, I would have huge regrets,” he says.

Why churches are silent

Potter now spends some of his time talking to churches. He says an estimated 45,000 Americans die each year because they don’t have insurance that provides them access to the care they need.

“This doesn’t happen in any other developed country in the world, and it should not happen here, the richest nation on the planet,” he says.

When he takes this message to churches, some shut their doors, he says. They don’t want to hear him. Pastors know the debate over health care divides their congregations.

“A lot of pastors are just too afraid to get involved in this and step up and say this is a moral issue,” he says. “They’re afraid of offending their parishioners.”

Some of Potter’s most consistent supporters, though, are former colleagues in the health care industry.  "I've had calls and emails from people I used to work with in the industry who thank me quietly," he says.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, Potter says health care changes are inevitable. The current system of for-profit health insurance companies is not sustainable. He says some Americans dismiss the uninsured, but they don’t realize how close they are to joining them.

He says many of the people who attended the Remote Area Medical clinic were working people. Their jobs simply didn’t provide enough good medical care. While many companies provide health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, most people with these maladies wouldn’t get coverage if they suddenly lost their job.

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“Most of us are just a layoff from losing it,” he says of health insurance.

Potter can’t guess what the Supreme Court will decide, but he has predicted what the United States will look like if the health care law is struck down.

We’ve already seen that future in a book and movie called “The Hunger Games," he wrote in a recent column.

"The Hunger Games" depicts a future America renamed Panem, where the government is disconnected from the people who struggle every day for basic needs such as medical care while the wealthy have access to modern medicine, he wrote.

“This society-gone-bad scenario of denying basic care to citizens based on their income or social status seems on the big screen not only cruel and unusual but even incomprehensible,” he wrote. “In fact, it’s occurring every day in what is still called the United States.”

Potter didn’t have to see that future on the screen. He’d already seen it in Virginia, where doctors cared for Americans in animal stalls.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Faith & Health • Health • Health care

soundoff (1,958 Responses)
  1. Mike

    It would be interesting if healthcare providers (hospitals, docs, pharmacies, etc.) had to publicize their reimbursement rates they receive from insurance companies. I work in a hospital, so I speak from first hand experience. Two examples: 1) Medicare pays $332 for a particular MRI. Health insurance companies pay anywhere from $552 to a little north of $2,700 for the same test. An uninsured patient who actually has cash (not too many of them!) pays about $580 under a "cash discount" program. 2) Some years ago I worked for a chain drug store. My daughter was prescribed amoxicillin for an ear infection. My "co-pay" was $7.00 for the prescription. My employee discount (cost plus 10%) came to $1.42.

    If we are to offer universal healthcare, part of that reform has to be evening out these discrepancies. If my insurance company is the one paying $2700 for the MRI, then I am obviously subsidizing the uninsured, right? So if we have universal healthcare, my insurance company shouldn't be paying $2700. Some say that it will, and that our health insurance premiums will go down if the mandate is passed. As for me, I wouldn't bet on it.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • chappy

      no Mike, no body is subsidizing uninsured at all. BIG LIE which leads me to believe you work for an insurance company to post this.

      The extra bucks go to insurance company executives. I worked at one of the largest and the last quarter of earnings they posted before I left them a couple years ago was in the BILLIONS. PROFIT, dude. Billions. That is where your money is going.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
    • chappy

      Insurance does not support hospitals. It puts those profits in there pockets. Drug companies, I cannot even imagine their profits. They can afford to fast pace ill-tested drugs to market and afford the inevitable payouts just a couple years later when this years miracle drug advertised on tv is next years, "if you or someone you love was injured damage or killed by this wonder drug lawyer commercial.

      Their costs are padded to pay for these payouts and STILL make themselves a profit.

      If healthcare becomes non-profit and dudes like this guy cannot decide they made enough money in couple years now they don't have to work the rest of their lives (all though most go to thailand to bangkor little boys not charities) but hey to each their own.

      TOO MUCH PROFIT in this industry to make me legally obligated to make their pockets grow. Not going to happen. Call any hospital in your community folks, ask them where they get the money to run themselves. Call the doctors and ask them how many consider getting out since they do all the sacrifice of YEARS of learning and the insurance companies walk away with all the dough. Or ask how many of the docs own little insurance gigs in partnerships!!

      Cash makes me pay more for services. Has since 1997. I ask when I get care, if I had insurance what would this cost me and it is NOT less, its more.

      If things were not manipulated, it would be the same.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Mike

      Chappy – no, I do actually work in a hospital. In my career I have worked in both for-profit and supposedly non-profit hospitals. I see what the insurance companies pay us. And I know they make billions upon billions. So if one company pays my facility $500 bucks, and another pays $2700, is the care different? Better? Nope. They both get the same scan, which costs the facility the same to perform. The hospitals state that the third party payers (insurance companies) subsidize the uninsured. Of course they do – Medicare doesn't quite cover the cost (although it comes a lot closer than hospitals want to admit). So the poor bloke with the insurance company that pays $2700 to the hospital for the scan does contribute to the many ER patients who come see us because they have no other option and cannot pay even a portion of the inflated hospital bill. Oh, but wait, don't I pay an indigent healthcare assessment on my property taxes?

      My point to this post is that even if Obamacare were to reduce the cost of treating the uninsured (which surely it must do since nobody would be uninsured, right?), would those who are insured see any savings? Would my indigent healthcare assessment go down? Probably not. My health insurance costs, which supposedly subsidize the uninsured and indigent, would not likely decrease at all. They might increase at a slightly less astronomical rate. Might. But I am fairly sure some insurance executives and hospital executives would see some nice annual bonuses. So my previous musing is more in line yours than you might think...

      June 27, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Mike

      oops – ...more in line WITH yours...

      June 27, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  2. Patty

    I think the USA is amazing!! I have a friend who I have to take to the doctor, ER, and Urgent Care on a regular basis. She lives on state welfare and uses medicare/medical for her medical care. I notice each time that she has ZERO co-pays for each visit including prescriptions!! Can't figure out how Obamacare could make her life any better than this!!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • mark

      Whats amazing, I can sit on my a$$ and get free medical, food, cell phone, and etc....its a great country alright.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • txrus

      The point of the Affordable Care Act is not to change your friend's healthcare-it is to make healthcare affordable & available to all those who don't have ANY health care coverage because of the cost, waiting periods, pre-exisiting conditions, etc.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  3. chappy

    all this means is that insurance companies gouge the heck of those who pay for insurance.

    This doesn't mean I ought to have to pay for the next insurance company executives jet vacation to some tropic island.

    I have accidently driven through some poverty invested areas in the past and was somewhat surprised to see how many people lounge around the porch all day. In the same manner I'm against being stuck with the bill that over 50% of all healthclaims are: and that is behaviorally oriented issues, drugs, alcohol, std's, obesity, etc.

    If I get my lazy keister up and go to work and they chose to sit on the porch all day, I'm sorry when they get sick I don't see it as my OBLIGATION. (I'm not saying, as this man's faith led him to act that their condition may recieve compassion) I'm saying its foolish to burden those who will work with those who will not.

    No govt agency can remove the bitterness that is part of life. And promises to relieve all your misery is ONLY going to go into the pockets of the executives, and there are thousands of them, who could care less about the uninsured being seen in cattle stalls. The rest of the world, many places do not receive even that. Is that my RESPONSIBILITY?

    The reason I say it is not is due to a LIFE magazine article about starvation in some african country in the late 80's. The article was a photo essay of bodies littered across a desert area. The focus of the written portion was the concentrated efforts of a certain religious related group who refused to let food through to their enemies. The vast mineral resources of africa were pillaged by just a few companies making certain families of europe obscenely rich. While the people of that country starved. The resources were there, they should have been shared are at the very least owned by the people whose nation it was. But that is not history.

    The same will be the result of requiring vast payments by the people of this nation into the pockets of insurance company executives. It will not change that some may still be seen in cattle stalls.

    And if that entire article isn't a result of a moneyed owned media manipulating yet more of your money into its pockets, I don't know what it because there is no dissenting voices among the media promising you the same thing they promised the poor back in the 60's. And as yet, the poor have little to see from all this "care" by the democrats. What is worse they were paid JUST the bare min to stay alive while stealing their very self respect at the same time. Had hunger compelled the healthy among the poor to actually do something, their lives and those around who saw the lessons of personal industry improve their lot as the govt has not in all these years.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      So you're for a single payer system?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  4. Melanie Edwards

    For those of you who think with hard work you can have anything in this country are highly disillusioned. Try having cancer and being denied ssi for not being "sick enough" or medicare or medicaid and having no private insurance and being denied care by the local cancer centers for not being "insured" and being told to go to a "univerisity" hospital 100 miles away and having no trasportation!!! I am personally watching a friend of mine going threw this!!! Thank God she has "friends" to help her find rides to the "free" hospital which she is treated like a second class citizen and made to feel like she doesn't even deserve to live. All the while fighting SS for not being "sick enough" by having to hire a "lawyer" which will end up, if shes lucky enough, half the money she deserves in a year or 2 if she's even still alive!! Think about that when you self richus people with no clue judge people!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Say what?

      Thats what friends are for. So how many of You have to pitch in for her?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  5. chicago7

    Good for Wendell Potter's crisis of conscience. I'm sure a major reason not mentioned for his staying on the job even after his crisis is obvious: if he quit, and found himself unable to get another job with health benefits, he and his family would have been uninsured. For-profit hospitals and health care in this country isn't the only problem. So is the fact that health care is attached to employment in country whose employers are exporting jobs in droves, and where they constantly look for things to cut in employee pay and benefits, including health care.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  6. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Everyone who has employer provided health care is just 1 serious illness or 1 layoff away from losing everything.

    Every year nearly 1 million Americans declare bankruptcy because of crushing health care costs and most of them had insurance when they got sick.

    No other developed nation on Earth allows this.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      We pay twice what any other nation on the planet pays and we've fallen below Costa Rica in quality of care.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Say what?

      Lol, that just means we have that many more deadbeats dragging down the averages. Nobody I know in suburbia has beat health care, sorry we all don't think broke people should see the SAME doctors as us. Kinda like an incentive to not be broke right?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • Overhauling Care!

      Though you have a valid point, I don't want Obama's healthcare system to remain in tact like it is. There are to many grey areas that make it easy for loop holes to provide for fraud. I think many of those opposed are people like me, who see how much fraud we have in social security and medicare. I've been under health care, from one form or another (currently BC/BS) since I was 18; I'm 53 now. I've had two surgeries and still working for a chemical plant. It scares me that I know so many people who are on disability, drawing a paycheck for nothing, who could be working. This is my/our money, being taken by people who have found loop holes. With the health care system set up like it is, there are already people looking at ways of exploiting it. So, until it's re-written, I'm totally agains't it. I hate to see people suffer, but this system designed like it is, is set up for failure.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  7. alfredo gonzales

    look like the people that are republicans called themselves Christian are fakes! They are selfish denying healthcare for the needy people. Everytime they go to church they make fun of God, because God is compassionate, loving, generous.if they want to be Christians they need to follow god way don't hate the poor people, only for political things remember bush was republican president and Obama save usa from the bank cartels.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • nick

      If you hate it here so bad GO BACK to Mexico.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • JOE KNOWS

      Republicans don't hate poor people, we hate LAZY people!!!! You know, those that want to sit around on their butts all day long and live off the system. I should not have to work my butt off all week long, to have my tax dollars given to lazy people who are capable of working, but are too lazy to do so. There are some people who are not capable of taking care of themselves, and those people deserve our help. But not the LAZY ones!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
    • WWJD?

      You invoke the Christian faith but you also have to remember, Jesus said we have to work hard in life to reach heaven. I don't believe the Chrisian faith is all about taking from one and giving to another. In the Christian community, the churchs are the focal point of faith, inspiration and helping thy neighbor. This is the christian thing to do. If you come to my church, I'll help you all I can. If you need to borrow from the offering plate, then thats fine. But, to expect me and millions more of hard working people to pay for your illness, isn't fair. The problem isn't that people don't want to help, it's the government, the doctors, insurances, ........all the red tape that has made medicine and medical help so expensive, only those with employee sponsered programs can afford it. I've worked all my life and been covered by insurance, but after the government takes out all their money per week in mediacare and social security, I got nothing left to help the ones that aren't doing enough to help themselves. Yeah, I know there are some with medical problems, who are suffering through no fault of their own. For these people, I wish we could find a solution. But, for the millions and millions who are just looking for that free Federal hand-out, I got no sympathy for. And for the record, I'm a democrat.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Hawk in texas

    Also do not forget the out of control medicine costs. the big drug companys are making a killing to treat but not cure people. remember bush saying that americans could not buy medicine from canada and mexico because it might be dangerous. well those drugs he would not let americans buy came from the u.s.a. in the first place.and he also would not let companys bid on lower cost drugs. as for the so called obama care it is better than nothing, but the republicans spent millions fighting it. like palin with her death squads. all the republicans did was lie about the whole thing.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  9. pete

    He took all the money he could and after he got rich, he got religion. if he was so concerned, why didn't he quit earlier?

    June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  10. AnotherAmericanWithoutInsurance

    I just want to thank this man for being willing to change his views. One year I was making $82000/year. A minor surgery that I expected to recover from in a matter of weeks became a complete inability to work. I am now on SSDI and make just enough more than income limits to receive assistance through the state. Due to legistation that requires 2 years and 5 months from the date of eligibility to receiver Medicare and my SSDI approval being rapid because of the severity of my condition I have a very long time to face without insurance. I am eligible for COBRA but it's cost would mean not eating or having gas to get to medical appointments and that coverage didn't really cover much of anything and I paid about $1000 every 3 months for medications. Impossible. So now I'm completely uninsured and receive care through a poverty program and my meds come from patient assistance programs. I can't see my family dr. and as much as possible will be treated via email; when that doesn't work I'll have to drive 2 hours away to a clinic that will see me for no cost. I'm blessed to have these programs. But being identified by the government as being extremely ill and unable to work in any capacity and then being denied healthcare is ludicrous. I never thought I'd be uninsured; I was well off with good job security despite the economy. What so many executives and politicians do not understand is that any one of them could be in my situation. All it taks is one medical complication during a simple procedure done by expert doctors who bear no fault and I am suddeny struggling to survive and healthcare is a dream I know I won't be fulfilling any time soon. Something is very wrong with this, especially since if I had just retired I would have had immediate medicare and SSDI is supposed to be equivilant in how it works.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • AnotherAmericanWithoutInsurance

      I should add also that I have a very rare condition. There is one medication to treat it at a cost of about $100/month or more. It isn't available through patient assistance and so I am off that medication. I have some saved so if I have to I can go on it and hope to work somthing out, but basically I'm uninsured and can't even treat the conditions I have.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  11. Amalasan

    "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Hélder Câmara, Roman catholic archbishop

    June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
  12. Jack

    Good evening everyone. You are all invited to visit – thestarofkaduri.com

    June 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  13. skysgirl

    All for One (America), One (America) for ALL!!!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  14. Bad Karma

    Healthcare and Capitalism are like fire and gasoline, somebody always gets Burned! Christianity and Capitalism are a Match Made In Heaven!

    June 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  15. Tom in San Diego

    Notwithstanding the care of the poor. This is the most egregious propaganda piece I have ever read. The fact is, Ohamacare was passed with backroom dealings and illegalities. If that were not true, it would not be before the Supreme Court. On Thursday we will learn what the court already knows. But whatever the outcome, this American will NOT be forced to do something that isnt my choice to do so...I will die first....

    June 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm |
    • Angela Birch

      What do you think you would be forced to do? Be responsible and buy health insurance?
      It is clear that if this is shot down we will have a universal health care system within 10 years, after a lot more people die. To be honest this plan was a GOP plan for protecting the insurance companies. This goes down they will be dead men walking.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • skysgirl

      I'm sure your family & friends will talk some sense into you!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • Hawk in texas

      Adios!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • TigersClaw

      Goodbye.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • youdeadyet

      So....you're like....really gonna die first if ordered to pay for things you don't want? So how you gonna do it? Live? Internet? You gonna use a car? Gas? Anyone gonna help you? Lots to think about on your way to death. You may want to slow down your eagerness – at least until you come up with a plan. (P.S. Are you a GOP or Democratic death person?).

      June 27, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Colum

      Why not make your choice, one that evolves the system fairly...?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
    • stchuckguy

      For-profit health insurance is the root of the problem (but not the only problem).

      June 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Kraig

      Tom, why don't you just go ahead and die. So because it was passed in a "back-room" (that is even if it were true) makes it bad? It is amazing how many people profess to be Christians, until their finances are impacted. To use a broad brush all Repugs have the same views and same talking points, no substance and no solution whatsoever. Just pure selfishness and sheer envy.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • REALpatriot

      Don't let the casket lid hit your a$$ on the way to the grave.

      June 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
  16. Pope on a Rope

    Finally. A Christian who isn't a hypocrite. I was starting to think they didn't exist.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • chappy

      One who made enough money in a few years as a health insurance company executive to retire for life. That's where the money goes.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  17. Raul

    When we all understand that health care is a neccesity and government obligation to provide to its people. I feel privilleged I always been insured but As a god believer it will make me feel better if the needed has the same privileges as me. I don't care if have to pay $400 on taxes a year to achieve that. You don't have to be republican or democrat to understand that.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  18. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Right wingers,

    You are clearly mistaken. Obama isn't the brown skinned socialist going around and trying to give everyone free health care. That was Jesus.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      VERY well said!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
    • skysgirl

      Amen to that!!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • jean

      Amen.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Winner

      Ka Ching!!!!! Well said!

      June 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  19. JohnReedjr

    As long as Health Care is a for profit business It will never get fixed. We need a government run single payer system for all.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      Exactly.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  20. ipmutt

    More sensationalism from mainstream media. Do not trust this outlet for real information, only for entertainment.

    June 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
    • Bishop Hairy Palms

      What, specifically, in this article do you dispute?

      Hello?

      Crickets......................

      June 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • TigersClaw

      You are a drone. There is no "mainstream media." That is a made – up word by the owners of Fox media in order to convince you that you need to listen only to them to get the truth.

      June 27, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Then why are you blogging here?

      June 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.