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Judy Woodruff on how her son with disabilities changed her view of health care

The ‘PBS NewsHour’ anchor is stepping down but still plans to report from around the country, with some stories about people with disabilities

Judy Woodruff, center, and her husband, Al Hunt, far right, with their children Hemi, left, Jeffrey, front center, and Benjamin in Washington in 2014. (Courtesy of Judy Woodruff)
11 min

Last month, TV anchor Judy Woodruff had some news of her own: She is stepping down from “PBS NewsHour” on Friday, Dec. 30.

One of the most respected and honored journalists on television could have retired. Instead, she’s embarking on a new PBS project, “America at a Crossroads,” where she’ll spend the next two years traveling around the country trying to figure out what voters want, what they need and how to repair the deep divides.

One subject close to her heart that she wants to highlight? People with disabilities.

Her oldest son, Jeffrey Hunt, was born with what she calls a “very mild” case of spina bifida. When he was a teenager, what was a supposed to be a routine operation left him in a wheelchair and in need of full-time care. It was life-altering for Jeffrey and the entire family.

Jeffrey, now 41, lives in a group home in Maryland, and says the love and support of his family got him to this point. “After I was injured my parents were with me every day,” he writes in an email. “They told me despite disabilities, I can succeed. I have succeeded thus far.”

It’s one thing to report on the kitchen-table issues that affect people, another to live them. As a mother, Woodruff is keenly attuned to the needs of those with disabilities and their caregivers; as a Washington reporter, she has a deep understanding of what politicians and policymakers can do to help them.

“It made her dedicated to advancing the needs of people with these challenges in the medical system,” says longtime friend and colleague Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’s chief foreign affairs correspondent. “I think she’s more sensitive. She’s always been empathic, but this inevitably changed her.”

“I thought I was sensitive and compassionate before Jeff was injured,” Woodruff says. “But I found that there’s just a whole other level of what he was experiencing that affected me profoundly.” As a parent and caregiver, “you suddenly belong to this community that you never knew you were going to be part of, and none of us probably wanted to be there.”

Woodruff, 76, was a senior in high school when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She became fascinated with politics and what it can do to change people’s lives, and spent two summers as a congressional intern in Washington. “I remember thinking: ‘This is the place where important things are happening. People are doing things that matter.’ And I just was captivated,” she says. She graduated from Duke with a degree in political science — the first in her extended family to attend college.

Not confident in her writing skills, she thought broadcast journalism might be a better fit. Her passion and ambition got her a job interview with an Atlanta station; her looks, she admits, got her a job as a weather girl.

She later reported on local politics and the state’s governor, Jimmy Carter, which landed her a job at NBC News in Washington, where she became one of the few women covering his presidential campaign. That’s where she met Wall Street Journal correspondent Al Hunt, who, he remembers, was smitten with the “the blonde with the great legs.” The two married in 1980 and have been a power couple in Washington for four decades.

Just before Jeffrey was born in 1981, she found out he had spina bifida, a medical condition caused when the spinal cord does not fully close during pregnancy; complications can include weakened leg muscles, incontinence and fluid on the brain.

The couple considered this a challenge but were determined to give Jeffrey a traditional childhood — and for the most part, they did. He was an active student, a swimmer and a skier. They had another son and adopted a daughter. They hosted an annual roast of politicians and journalists in Washington to raise money for research and public awareness of spina bifida. Life was good.

In 1998, when Jeffrey was 16, his doctor recommended an operation to replace a shunt, which had been inserted when he was a baby to drain excess fluid on his brain. The night before, he was joking around with friends; the next day, he was in a coma.

Woodruff and her husband raced their son to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, where they spent the next four months. The doctor who saved Jeffrey’s life? Ben Carson, then a groundbreaking pediatric neurosurgeon — decades before he ran for president and served in the Trump administration. (In an email, Carson calls Woodruff “an extremely caring individual” and “one of the finest people in the world of news media that I have ever met.”)

Jeffrey was left unable to walk, with limited movement, vision and speech. As a mother, Woodruff went into survival mode. What she didn’t realize until much later was that she never grieved — for her son and for the life he might have lived.

“We were trying so hard to just keep everything on an even keel, make sure Jeffrey had access to good therapy, good teaching to bring him back to a semblance of where he had been before the injury,” she remembers. “We’re so focused on making everything as normal as possible that we didn’t really allow ourselves to grieve, because he’s still there. He’s alive, right? He’s still Jeff, but he’s a changed Jeff. And there’s a mourning process that we didn’t go through.”

Woodruff says she was “devastated” by all of it. “I mean, that doesn’t even do justice. I remember I cried every day for two years after it happened.” She’s past that point but can still “just lose it all together” when she thinks about what might have been. “He’s a wonderful person. He’s an amazing human being. He’s so full of life and spirit. And he could have had a different life.”

All of this could have derailed her career; Woodruff, by then at CNN, was given all the time off she needed. But she was overwhelmed and considered quitting her job. How do you move forward when life breaks your heart?

She recalls confiding in one of Jeffrey’s doctors, who told her quitting wouldn’t heal her son. “He said: ‘What you need to do is go and be the best person you can, be the best mom you can be, support your family in a sense that you’re healthy, mentally and physically. Jeffrey doesn’t need a mom who’s broken into pieces and miserable; he needs a mom who’s able to put one foot in front of the other.’”

As parents, she and Al were lucky to have the flexibility and financial resources to give Jeffrey whatever was required. As journalists, they experienced an intimate look at America’s health-care system.

“It makes you appreciative of how difficult and expensive a serious health issue is,” Al says. “It used to infuriate me when politicians would talk about how good the current health-care-delivery system was. They never went through the hell of not being able to afford the best care.”

He and Woodruff credit politicians such as Bob Dole, John McCain, Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy, who fought for the Americans With Disabilities Act and other legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination and mandates public accommodations. Obamacare, he says, has also helped millions of families.

Jeffrey’s disability “hasn’t changed my view of politics, per se — and I think Judy would say the same — but it’s provided a window in the inequities of American care,” Al says.

Their experience has also provided a better understanding of how health care and disabilities are reported in the media. “I’ve gotten to know journalists over the years who cover people with disabilities — and recognize, frankly, how little it’s covered,” Woodruff says. “There certainly are plenty of groups out there beating the drum for cancer and heart disease and covid. They’re all worthy. They’re all important.”

Covering disabilities is complicated by the fact that they occur for so many reasons: genetic conditions, illness, accidents, war injuries. “Because there are so many different organizations and people advocating, it’s been hard to come together and make one case,” she says. “It pits one good cause against another good cause.”

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Woodruff says she never felt health care should become her full-time beat, but she became more attuned to the lack of funding for disabilities. “I was aware of it enough to say, ‘Okay, we should do this or we should do that interview, or we should pay attention to that debate over a vote.’”

She partnered with the Spina Bifida Association to raise visibility and funding for research and treatment; Jeffrey would often join her at conferences on the subject. After his operation, her outreach expanded to the broader community of the disabled and their caregivers.

There are also the smaller, personal acts. “Judy does so much quietly,” Mitchell says. She was visiting Woodruff’s home a few years back when a young mother arrived; her baby had spina bifida, and Woodruff had offered to spend some one-on-one time answering questions. “Judy and Al have transformed a family tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit.”

Jeffrey graduated from high school and college with the help of full-time aides. He lives in a private group home at Target Community & Educational Services, a program affiliated with McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. He spends some weekends with his parents and attends church every Sunday.

As part of the college’s vocational program, he works part time admitting students and faculty members to the McDaniel athletic center. He’s a huge fan of the school’s football team, as well as the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Wizards. He loves to ski — a sport he discovered when he was 4 years old — and goes to Vail, Colo., which has an adaptive ski program.

His other love? News — which is no surprise as the son of two journalists. He’s arguably his mom’s biggest fan: They talk every day, and he follows current events carefully and constantly sends her questions she should ask.

“I watch her program every night and call her afterwards,” he writes. “After we discuss the program, she asks me if I know how much she loves me. She is serious at work, but at home she can be very funny. She makes me laugh a lot. She does great ‘Godfather’ imitations, like Tattaglia.”

“He’s doing remarkably well,” Woodruff says. Her son likes where he lives and has made a lot of friends — something she believes is harder for people with disabilities, who are often defined by their medical conditions. “People just treat you differently,” she says. “And that’s the part of it that really bothers me.”

She adds: “I’ve thought about this a lot. He could have been a very bitter person because of what happened. But he manages to have a remarkably positive outlook.”

Over the next two years, Woodruff says, she plans to do more segments on disability in America, with a special interest in the lack of resources for adults living with disabilities. It is an issue that cuts across politics, demographics and party lines; she hopes she can bring her personal experience to the stories and help restore some of the country’s broken trust in the media.

“We have to walk that fine line between having a heart and caring and being human, but also understanding that we have a job to do,” she says. “So I guess I’m asking the public to understand that. Most of us are trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to get the story right.”