Speaking up for Kennedy Krieger

September 23, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Judy Woodruff, the senior CNN correspondent, and Al Hunt, executive Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal, didn't know what to expect the summer day in 1998 when they brought their eldest son to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. "We were so scared," Hunt recalled.

Jeff, then 16, was semi-comatose, the result of a routine surgery gone awry. He couldn't walk, talk or eat, even blink his eyes; most of the day, he slept. Oddly, the therapist who arrived in his room within the first hour didn't seem to notice. "I'm going to get you ready to go home," she told the boy as she measured him for a wheelchair.

This was the moment, Hunt says, "I realized what a special place [Kennedy Krieger] is."

Watching the work of people who would challenge Jeff proved as extraordinary as watching his progress, Hunt and Woodruff found. Jeff's accomplishments were possible not only because of his own determination, but also because of the unstinting work of "people who are best at what they do," says Woodruff. "We came away thinking it was family."

Like family, the couple volunteered to help in return. So when Kennedy Krieger, the Baltimore rehabilitation institute for children with brain injuries, asked them to help launch its ambitious $50 million capital campaign, Hunt and Woodruff immediately agreed. Last night, Woodruff and Hunt, as honorary co-chairmen, appeared at the campaign kickoff to tell their story so the institute's research and rehabilitation of children may continue.

Jeff was very blessed, his mother says. Yes, he was born with spina bifida, in which the spinal column is not fully formed at birth, but his was a mild case and he'd overcome it. A swimmer, a skier, a boy so articulate he argued his parents into the ground -- they teased him he'd be a lawyer -- Jeff had finished ninth grade at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, and 10th at Edmund Burke School when an annual CAT scan told doctors they should replace the shunt inserted in his brain 16 years earlier, when he was 10 months old, to relieve excess fluid. The operation was booked on the eve of what promised to be an exciting summer: a Washington internship, discovery camp at the University of Vermont and a family vacation in Alaska.

The boy didn't wake up from the surgery. "It was the worst sort of nightmare, short of losing a child, any parent can have," says Woodruff, who immediately took a leave of absence from "Inside Politics," the nightly television show she co-anchors. Three weeks later, on July 31, Jeff was transferred to Kennedy Krieger. The whole family moved with him, parents and two younger siblings staying in the Harbor Court hotel the first month and, later, at the home of a friend of a friend.

By the end of August, Jeff could move his nose a bit, but not his arm. As soon as he could do anything, therapists pushed him to do it more. Every day, one or the other parent was at his side.

This would be a long haul, but not until prodding by Johns Hopkins brain expert Guy McKhann did Woodruff return to work three days a week, in September, just in time for the Clinton impeachment hearings. One day she got a phone call from her husband. That day, Hurt had been with Jeff in speech therapy.

"Albert, I don't have time for this. I have two interviews," Woodruff told Hunt when he called that day. "I said, `No, wait, listen,' " Hunt said, and he gave Jeff the phone. Slowly, almost mumbling, the boy spoke: "Hi, Mom."

The next sound was a shriek. "I lost it," Woodruff says, "I almost fell apart."

Four and a half months later, at Thanksgiving, Jeff came home. He was able to eat and speak. He attended school daily at Kennedy Krieger for two months last spring.

Two weeks ago, Jeff returned to his old school, taking along a companion who can take faster notes. Last week, friends surprised him with an 18th birthday party. "If you came to our house, he'd probably be on the computer," Woodruff says.

In the matter of sending new messages to the brain, so the brain can create new patterns for walking and talking, Jeff has a lot of work to do. With huge exertion, Woodruff says, he now can use a walker for 10 minutes.

"Al and I tell him all the time he's our hero," Woodruff says.

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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