I will never forget Eric Stoudemire, Junior.
I will never forget the night we met.
I will never forget his story.
In a way, he inspired me to become a lawyer.
I did not know it as I covered it, but Eric’s story started on a chilly late-winter morning about a month before he and I met.
I was a young TV reporter working the 11:30 a.m. show for Louisville, Kentucky’s Fox affiliate. If 11:30 a.m. seems like an odd time to do news, you’re not wrong: I had never seen a newscast at that time either. But, our 11:30 show had a point: to beat all the other stations – and their noon newscasts – to the punch.
So, the 11:30 emphasized “breaking news” – and we were on the worst kind of breaking news scene. On the South End of the City, a local cable van had hit and hurt an elementary school child who’d just gotten off a bus. We arrived on scene with only a couple minutes to do everything – shoot footage, grab an interview and go live. But, even in that short a time, an image burned itself into my mind: A child’s shoe sat alone in the middle of the street – the young victim had been literally knocked out of it when he was hit.
Even so, the 11:30 came and went – and so did the child’s story. The same day, our breaking-news live shot was dumbed down into a shorter story, then a shorter one still, and, in no more than two days, it faded from view.
Until one frustrating, life-changing night a bit more than a month later.
I was on assignment, working what was supposed to be the lead story for the station’s prime-time 10:00 p.m. newscast – and we had nothing. I looked at the photographer with whom I had been working. We shrugged and shook our heads.
Our story had fallen through. Two hours to deadline.
We needed something – anything – newsworthy to fill time.
I called the show’s producer to relay the bad news. The conversation that followed caused a seismic shift.
“You guys are in the South End, right?” the producer rhetorically asked. “Why don’t you go check this out: A guy called … said we did a story about a month ago. His kid apparently got hit by a cable van. We actually have video of the scene, if you can believe it … the van literally knocked the kid out of his shoes. The dad wants to talk.”
I could not believe it, even though I knew too well the video the producer referenced. But, news was rarely this ironic – and forgotten stories nearly never saw light again.
Alas, I did not have time to consider the coincidence. We had less than two hours to show. We had to move.
We raced to the address we were given – the father’s apartment. We grabbed our gear from the back of the truck and ran to the door. We were not prepared.
The father lived in subsidized housing right next to the railroad tracks in a poor area in Louisville’s South End. He met us outside. His eyes were red – glazed over: It looked like he’d been crying or hadn’t slept, maybe both.
He introduced himself.
“I’m Eric Stoudemire, Senior. Thank you for coming. I had nowhere else to go.”
He led us into his home. Immediately inside the door, a cramped living room quickly gave way to a tiny kitchen, then, around a quick bend, a series of tightly-packed bedrooms. We followed Eric Senior into the bedroom straight ahead.
We could not believe what we saw.
The first thing I noticed: A makeshift IV dangling from a clothes hanger, attached to a hook in the room’s drop-tile ceiling. My eyes followed the IV’s tube: down, to the left, and stuck into the arm of an elementary school boy lying in a small bed flush against the room’s southern wall.
His eyes were shut.
His mouth was agape.
There was a hole in his head. Literally.
Eric Stoudemire, Junior.
The boy who had been hit, knocked from his shoes and badly hurt a month before. Now, lying comatose in his father’s apartment.
Eric Senior choked back tears. So did I.
“Why isn’t he in the hospital?” I asked.
“They sent him home.”
Eric Senior was a single father raising his small family of elementary-aged children. He worked two full-time jobs – the second one, almost exclusively for the insurance benefits. He wanted to make sure his children were covered. They were his life.
But, the insurance he worked so hard to get his family had failed him. Most likely deliberately. Knowing Eric Senior had no way to fight back.
After Eric Junior was hit and knocked from his shoes, he was taken to University Hospital. He was in a coma – but, also in good hands: University Hospital had (by far) the best trauma unit in town.
But, Eric Senior’s insurance had denied coverage. The excuse was mind-boggling: The insurance company said Eric Junior was not healthy enough to cover.
“Isn’t that the exact opposite of what insurance is supposed to do?”
“I thought so,” Eric Senior answered. “That’s why I’m working.”
University Hospital kept and treated Eric Junior as long as it could without any insurance coverage. But, eventually, it had to turn him out. So, that day, Eric Senior had been summoned to the Hospital’s ER, where a group of tearful, apologetic nurses gave him a two-hour crash course in how manage a comatose patient.
Something they had spent a lifetime learning.
Eric Junior’s life literally hanging in the balance.
Eric Senior had no choice. He took Eric Junior home. Put him in bed. Hung the IV from the ceiling. And called everyone he knew for help.
“I don’t know what I am going to do.”
That night, we told their stories. Eric Junior, an elementary school student and pee-wee football star who’d been knocked from his shoes, dropped into a coma, and was sent home from the hospital because an insurance company determined he was too hurt to help. Eric Senior, a single father suddenly turned crash-course ER nurse, because insurance he worked a second job to get refused to cover his son.
They were the 10:00 lead.
They hit home in a huge way.
The 10:00 show had – by a wide margin – our station’s biggest audience. Tens of thousands of people watched every night. And, I swear, every one of them called the newsroom.
Everyone was furious. Almost all offered to help. Most asked how they could donate whatever they had.
But, one call offered what no one else possibly could.
As luck had it, the insurance company’s CEO lived in Louisville. Even more, he was a fan of our 10:00 news. And, most incredibly of all, he liked my stories and paid special attention when I came on the air.
He was appalled at what his company had done. Before our newscast was over, he made a promise – and set wheels in motion – to make it right.
The next morning, I was called into work early. The reason: I had to cover the response to the Stoudemire story.
We drove back to the father’s apartment.
Fittingly, the scene was night-and-day different. A mob of in-home doctors, nurses and therapists crowded the home – so many, you would have thought it was the hospital. They had patched the once-gaping hole in Eric Junior’s head. They stretched out Eric’s arms and legs. They helped him walk a few steps. Even though some of the stretches and movements made Eric cry (he could not really speak, though doctors thought his speech might eventually come back), he made more progress in one morning than he had in the previous month.
Eric Senior still had not slept – but, you could not tell it by his smile.
I was happy, too – though, not without a hint of melancholy. Don’t get me wrong – the scene was spectacular. Standing in the same spot the night before, I could not have imagined it. But, if I had helped make a difference, I could not help but think of the almost impossible confluence of circumstances that had to line up just so, so I could make any kind of an impact: Our initial story had to fall through, so we could be reassigned; we had to get a random call from a father with nowhere else to turn; we had had to get the story to air in the exact format and time slot it did; a powerful insurance company executive not only had to be living in the City, but watching at that time, and paying full attention to something I said – so he could be moved to act; then he had to actually take initiative to fix the problem. I was a mere domino in a huge game of chance – reliant upon luck and the rest of the world, with little ability to actually make it right.
Over the next couple months, we did a couple more follow-up stories with the Stoudemires. Eric Junior was improving – if incrementally. Eric Senior was there every step of the way – still working two jobs, still taking care of his family. He and I eventually fell out of touch. Until things fell apart (again).
A bit more than a year later, Eric Senior again called the newsroom. The glare of camera lights gone, insurance had again stopped paying for Eric Jr.’s treatment. Eric Senior. asked for my help.
“Are you still with me?” he asked.
“Of course,” I responded, without hesitation.
I pitched a follow-up story on Eric Junior at our afternoon news meeting. But, there was no interest. None. Maybe I didn’t push hard enough. I doubt it would have mattered if I had. Time and news had moved on – even if the Stoudemires hadn’t.
I was crestfallen.
It was the last time I would speak to Eric Senior.
There was nothing more I could do.
In late 2007, I was laid off. Almost immediately, I was offered reporter jobs at stations in four cities – three of them, in much larger markets. I had to make a choice. Move onward and upward in TV. Or make a difference.
I chose the latter.
I chose the law.
It has not been easy.
In just a month, working two jobs in two cities, I did my best to cram for the LSAT. My wife and I dropped everything and moved to New York, so I could attend NYU Law School. I met a wonderful law partner, and we founded and have sacrificed for a firm that stands for our values.
It has been worth it.
Now, I need not rely on luck or the rest of the world to make wrongs right. If a polluter poisons a community, I can force it to clean up its toxic mess. If a man sexually assaults a woman, I can make him pay. If a whistleblower is fired for speaking the truth, I can secure justice.
In short, I can make a difference.
In a terrible irony, Eric Junior died during my first week of law school.
Every year, Eric Senior posts a picture of Eric Junior on his birthday; every year, a picture of his gravestone on the day he died.
Though it has been more than a decade, the Stoudemires have never been far from my mind. I could not help them. Not the way they needed me to help.
At least, not then.
But, I can now, by righting the wrongs done to other victims.
I will never forget Eric Stoudemire, Junior. This is the best I can do to honor his memory.