Judy Woodruff: A Personal Path to Advocacy

Rob Capriccioso
September 13, 2004

Judy Woodruff and her family on a recent ski trip in Vail, Colorado

With the presidential campaign moving into its frenetic final weeks, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff, host of Inside Politics, is a very busy woman. But not too busy to help host this month's Spinal Bifida Association Annual Celebrity Roast.

For the past 16 years, Judy Woodruff and her husband Al Hunt, Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal, have shared an important duty. No matter what political events of the day must be covered, they are committed to raising awareness— and funds—for the association through this annual event.

According to the Association's Web site, the roast allows politicians to turn the tables on the media's biggest players. This year, on September 29 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, DC, journalist Bernard Shaw, who retired as Woodruff's co-anchor in 2001, will be the roastee of honor. Typically, the event raises between $250,000 and $350,000 to support spina bifida research, prevention and quality-of-life programs, according to Mary Corcoran Knoll, director of the program.

The event is deeply personal for Woodruff. For one thing, the perennial emcee of the event is journalist Mark Shields, godfather to her son, Jeffrey. For another, Jeffrey has spina bifida. In the past few years, complications resulting from
surgery related to Jeffrey's treatment have left him
wheelchair-bound and with limited vision.

This wasn't a situation that Woodruff ever expected to be living, day-in and day-out. She would never have spoken publicly about Jeffrey's condition if he wasn't comfortable with people knowing about it. But she says that he's just as concerned about raising awareness as she is. In this interview with Connect for Kids, Woodruff explains how her family's private situation has helped make her a public advocate for children.

Many child-focused organizations, like the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and the Spina Bifida Association, contact you to serve on their boards or to speak on their behalf. Why?

First and foremost, I'm a mother. Jeff was born with spina bifida, which is the most commonly occurring disabling birth defect—something neither my husband, Al, nor I had even heard of when we were told one month before I was to give birth that I might have a baby with spina bifida. And after he was born, we had a very steep learning curve to learn about it and what it meant.

Fortunately for Jeff, he had a very mild form of spina bifida. He walked at 13 months, he was able to do things that they had warned us that he might not be able to do. He had a few learning disabilities—but nothing major—he went and has gone to a terrific school. He did have some complications that are associated with spina bifida, but all in all he was doing very, very well, and quite the courageous young man.

Did something change that made Jeff's life more difficult?

When he was 16 years old—in fact, he was skiing, and swimming, and biking, and he was the manager of the football team and the wrestling team at his school—and then when he was 16 years old, he had to go in for a surgery to replace a shunt... Many of these kids who have spina bifida also have hydrocephalus which [means they] make more cerebrospinal fluid than they absorb, so it builds up in the head. So, when he was an infant, they put a tube in to drain that excess fluid down into his abdominal cavity. He didn't have any problems with it, nothing, I mean he was doing great... Finally, it went all those years and then at 16 they told us it wasn't working. He went in to have a surgery and there was a mistake during surgery that left Jeffery profoundly disabled. So he went from being pretty much a normal kid, and a very courageous normal kid, to being a kid with profound disabilities.

He now cannot walk, he's in a wheelchair, he can only walk with great difficulty with a walker, but he's in a wheelchair. His vision is limited, the left eye is closed. He can't use the right side of his body, his right arm. His speech is dysarthric, which means it's hard to understand... You can understand it, it just takes more effort. And his short-term memory was almost completely wiped out, so to learn new information he's got to work really, really hard to, just to hold it there, and come up with [ways of] compensating.

Before going in to the surgery, did you have any idea that something like that could happen?
No, I mean, it was not—no. We were told what the procedure was and we talked with doctors about it, and we were told that it was something that was a very normal thing to do for what he was dealing with.

It seems difficult...

...Yeah, it is hard, I mean, it's emotionally hard for us. It happened six years ago, he's now 22, so it's hard for me to talk about it, but it did change his life, it changed our family, and it made me much more aware of birth defects, not only spina bifida. ...I'm very sensitive to what families go through.

Election '04 Special
Judy Woodruff:
Inside Kids & Politics

Last year, you interviewed an opinionated teen political pundit named Kyle Williams. When you were a kid, were you engaged in politics?
Not at all. I grew up as an army brat... I had a very eclectic kind of upbringing. As far as current events, neither one of my parents were very interested in what was going on in the world. I didn't have a lot of political exposure.

When did that change?
The first conscious memory I have of paying attention to politics was in the fall of 1960, when I was in 9th grade, during the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and talking about that in class and being interested.

Do you think candidates reach out enough to kids?
[T]hey need to live up to their promises. The rap on youth voters or youth in America is, in general, they're not worth all the effort... I hear that argument, but I also know that after 9/11 and after the wars that we've been through, a lot of young people really do pay attention and really do care about the issues... They just need somebody to speak to them in a way that helps them know they are being listened to.

Who tunes in to Inside Politics?
Well, all viewers of news programs skew older.. Having said that, we do get a good, significant group of young people... We try different things to get younger people interested, but many of their issues are the same as everybody else... I always think that we could do a better job of it.

After Jeff's surgery, how did it change the inner dynamics of your family? How did it affect his younger brother, Ben, for example?

It was an enormous blow for him. He was 11 when it happened and Lauren was nine. And Ben was extraordinary, I mean, I'll never forget—we kept him away from the hospital for the first few days because his brother just looked so different, I mean, he had tubes coming out of him and he couldn't talk and he couldn't eat... He was on a feeding tube. And, Ben I know went into the hospital room and this was about five days, six days after it happened, and he just went over and gave Jeffery a big hug and said, "Jeff, I love you..." and he had brought a joke book, so he sat there and read to him. It was just, obviously it brought tears to our eyes because he connected immediately...

Before Jeff was born, did you know anything about spina bifida?

I had never heard of it. Or if I had, I was not aware, it made no dent in my consciousness. So when they first said the word I remember thinking, 'what is it?'

I think there is greater [general] awareness [now], I absolutely think there is. Because now when you say 'spina bifida' to people...many people will at least, you can tell they have a sense of what you're talking about. I will often, though, go on to say, 'Do you understand what it is?' and I'll quickly explain that it's when...the spinal cord doesn't fully form, doesn't form properly, and often there's an opening to the outside of the body of the baby...

After all of this, do you consider yourself to be a child advocate?

I do, but I don't want to be presumptuous... I mean it's not a full time occupation for me, it's something that I do in my spare time, and there's not a lot of that. So I try to be helpful in small ways and I would never presume to be a major player in that regard. I always wish that I could do more. For example, I'm on a March of Dimes advisory board and I can go to almost none of their meetings because they're all in New York City, and it's very hard for me to get on a plane and go. It means, when I do that, I essentially I have to give up doing my program that day, and that's really hard.

I did something a few weeks ago for the Department of Health and Human Services, they were having a disability recognition day and they asked me to come and just speak—and I did. And I praised Jeffery's physical therapist because the point of the day was even people with disabilities should get physical exercise, even to the point of making it uncomfortable. You know, they need to get out there and they need to exercise those muscles and bones so that they don't deteriorate...

I took Jeffery two weekends ago to a meeting of a cerebral palsy group that was having a meeting about young adults and older adults, and I wanted to hear some of their issues. I mean, they're all about advocacy because they feel there hasn't been enough done for people with disabilities. And that's something I have a lot of interest in.

With all this stuff always going on in your life, what gets you through when you're feeling especially pressed?

[H]umor is enormously important. We do a lot of teasing and a lot of just joking around in our family, so that absolutely gets you through some tough moments. I mean, not everything, there's still moments when I explode or Al will explode, or Jeff will explode, or somebody, but we try to stagger it so we don't all lose our temper at the same time or lose our patience... Laughter and humor will get you through the worst...

And who's the most humorous?

Boy, that's tough'we all have our moments...I mean, Jeffery can be very funny, Ben can be very funny, Al has a great sense of humor, and I can even be goofy! People don't see that on TV, but my kids often tell me, 'If people only knew the way you really are, Mom.' I can be pretty silly sometimes with my kids. I try not to do it on the air too often... Except, you know, there is a good bit of politics that's silly, don't you think?

Rob Capriccioso is a staff writer for Connect for Kids.



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