A subject close to his heart What does she want to highlight? People with disabilities.
Her eldest son, Jeffrey Hunt, was born with what she calls a “very mild” case of spina bifida. When she was a teenager, what was supposed to be a routine operation left him in a wheelchair and in need of full-time care. It was life changing for Jeffrey and the entire family.
Jeffrey, now 41, lives in a group home in Maryland and says his family’s love and support got him to this point. “After I was injured, my parents were with me every day,” he writes in an email. “They told me that despite the disabilities, I can be successful. I’ve been successful so far.”
It is one thing to report on kitchen table issues that affect people, and another to live them. As a mother, Woodruff is very attuned to the needs of people with disabilities and their caregivers; As a Washington reporter, she has an in-depth understanding of what politicians and legislators can do to help them.
“It got her dedicated to advancing the needs of people with these challenges in the medical system,” says an old friend and colleague. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign affairs correspondent. “I think he is more sensitive. She has always been an empath, but this inevitably changed her.”
“I thought he was sensitive and compassionate before Jeff got hurt,” Woodruff says. “But I found there’s another level to what he was experiencing that affected me deeply.” As a parent and caregiver, “suddenly you belong to this community that you never knew you were going to be a part of, and probably none of us wanted to be there.”
Woodruff, 76, was a high school senior when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She became fascinated with politics and what she can do to change people’s lives, and she spent two summers as a congressional intern in Washington. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the place where big things happen. People are doing things that matter. And it just captivated me,” she says. She graduated from Duke with a degree in political science, the first in her extended family to attend college.
Lacking confidence in his writing abilities, he thought broadcast journalism might be a better fit. His passion and ambition landed him a job interview at an Atlanta station; her appearance, she admits, got her a job as a meteorologist.
He later reported on local politics and the state 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. There she met Wall Street Journal correspondent Al Hunt, who, as she recalls, fell in love with “the big-legged blonde.” The two married in 1980 and have been a power couple in Washington for four decades.
Right before Jeffrey was born in 1981, she learned that he had spina bifida, a medical condition caused when the spinal cord does not close completely during pregnancy; complications can include weakened leg muscles, incontinence, and fluid on the brain.
The couple found this a challenge, but they were determined to give Jeffrey a traditional childhood, and for the most part they did. He was an active student, swimmer, and skier. They had another son and adopted a daughter. They hosted an annual roast of politicians and journalists in Washington to raise money for spina bifida research and public awareness. Life was good.
In 1998, when Jeffrey was 16, his doctor recommended surgery to replace a shunt that had been inserted as a baby to drain excess fluid from his brain. The night before, he was joking with friends; the next day, he was in a coma.
Woodruff and her husband took 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 person” and “one of the best people in the media world I’ve 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 I could have lived.
“We were trying really hard to keep everything in balance, to make sure Jeffrey had access to good therapy, good teaching to get him back to where he looked before the injury,” he recalls. “We’re so focused on making everything as normal as possible that we don’t really allow ourselves to cry, because he’s still there. He is alive, right? He’s still Jeff, but he’s a changed Jeff. And there’s a grieving process that we don’t go through.”
Woodruff says she was “devastated” by all of it. “I mean, that doesn’t even do it justice. I remember crying every day for two years after it happened.” She’s past that point, but she can still “lose it all.” when you think of what might have been. “He is a wonderful person. He is an amazing human being. He is so full of life and spirit. And he could have had a different life.
All this could have derailed his career; Woodruff, by then at CNN, was given all the time off he needed. But she was overwhelmed and she considered leaving her job. How do you keep going when life breaks your heart?
He remembers confiding in one of Jeffrey’s doctors, who told him that quitting smoking would not cure his son. “He said, ‘What you have to do is go and be the best person you can be, be the best mother you can be, support your family in the sense that you’re healthy, mentally and physically. Jeffrey doesn’t need a broken and miserable mother; he needs a mother who can 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 everything he needed. As journalists, they got an intimate look at America’s healthcare system.
“It makes you appreciate how difficult and expensive a serious health problem is,” Al says. “I used to get mad when politicians talked about how good the current health care system was. They never went through the hell of not being about to pay for the best care.”
He and Woodruff credit politicians like Bob Dole, John McCain, Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy who fought for the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination and require 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 has provided a window into the inequities of American health care,” says Al.
Her experience has also provided a better understanding of how the media reports on health care and disability. “I’ve met journalists over the years who cover people with disabilities and I recognize, frankly, how little is covered,” says Woodruff. “There are certainly a lot of groups beating the drum for cancer, heart disease and covid. They are all worthy. They are all important.
Covering disabilities is complicated by the fact that they occur for many reasons: genetic conditions, illnesses, accidents, war injuries. “Because there are so many different organizations and advocates, it’s been hard to come together and make a case,” she says. “It pits a good cause against another good cause.”
Woodruff says she never felt that health care should become her full-time goal, but she became more attuned to the lack of funding for disabilities. “I was aware enough of it to say, ‘Okay, we should do this or we should do that interview, or we should pay attention to that debate about a vote.'”
Partnered with the Spina Bifida Association to increase visibility and funding for research and treatment; Jeffrey often joined her at conferences on the subject. After her operation, her reach expanded to the broader community of people with disabilities and their caregivers.
There are also the smaller personal acts. “Judy does a lot of things in silence,” says Mitchell. She was visiting the Woodruff house a few years ago when a young mother arrived; Her baby had spina bifida and Woodruff had offered to spend some time alone answering questions. “Judy and Al have turned a family tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit.”
Jeffrey graduated from high school and college with the help of full-time assistants. He lives in a private group home at Target Community & Educational Services, an affiliate program of McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He spends some weekends with her parents and attends church every Sunday.
As part of the college’s vocational program, he works part-time admitting students and faculty at the McDaniel Sports Center. He is 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, and goes to Vail, Colorado, which has an adaptive ski program.
His other love? News, which is not surprising as the son of two journalists. He is arguably the biggest fan of his mother: they talk every day, he follows current events carefully, and constantly sends her questions that he should ask.
“I watch her show every night and call her afterward,” she writes. “After talking about the show, she asks me if I know how much she loves me. She is serious at work, but at home she can be a lot of fun. She makes me laugh a lot. She does great ‘Godfather’ impressions, like Tattaglia.”
“He’s doing remarkably well,” says Woodruff. Her son likes where she lives and has made many friends, something she believes is more difficult for people with disabilities, who are often defined by their medical conditions. “People just treat you differently,” she says. “And that’s the part that really bothers me.”
She adds: “I’ve thought about this a lot. She may have been a very bitter person about what happened. But she manages to have a remarkably positive outlook.”
Over the next two years, Woodruff says, he plans to do more segments on disability in the United States, with a special interest in the lack of resources for adults living with disabilities. It is an issue that transcends 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 make the story right.”