MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A TV reporter's career is made when the reporter makes a difference in the life of a child.
My career was made 18 years ago when I told Alice's story.
"I'm just blessed to be here the way I am today," 19-year-old Alice Hewitt, formerly of Bartlett, Tennessee, said when she, her parents Mark and Natalie and I reunited a few weeks ago. She was the only one who kept her composure. Mom, Dad and I lost it.
I lost it because the last time I saw each of them was 1999, 18 years ago. Little Alice, eight months old, bouncing on my knee, just starting her life -- was on a course to losing her life. "I remember feeling desperate," said Natalie. "We were racing against the clock."
Alice desperately needed surgery for a condition called craniosynostosis. She was born with her skull already fused -- her rapidly growing brain already causing her head to bulge. Germantown, Tennessee plastic surgeon Dr. Bruce Raffel said if she didn't have corrective plastic surgery right away, she faced brain damage, blindness or death.
Alice's parents were on TennCare, the state-funded insurance plan, and its HMO Access MedPlus. At the time, Dr. Raffel was the only surgeon in the Mid-South qualified and trained to perform Alice's operation. But he wasn't in the state plan's network. Access MedPlus, subsidized by Tennessee taxpayers, would not pay for her surgery. "We were so desperate. I felt so lost, and then you really helped us," Natalie said.
For weeks, I threw myself into the case, worked the phones, really hammered the insurance folks when I discovered the state policy actually covered Alice's condition. Then, in the middle of one of my Alice reports, a producer handed me a sheet of paper on live TV. Access MedPlus shifted its position and agreed to cover Alice's surgery. "Within a matter of weeks, it was done!" said Natalie.
After that, everything's a blur: Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, pre-op, the room full of the Hewitts' family, little Alice getting prepped, the wait while she was in the OR, her return to the room with those swollen eyes.
Then Dr. Raffel's prognosis. "There were no complications. It was a complete success. Everything's hunky dory from now on," he said.
From then on, Alice was able to grow up as a normal girl: to sleep on Mark's chest, pre-school, Kindergarten, cheerleading at Munford High School, the trip to Times Square, high school graduation -- to a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Memphis.
"I'm so grateful," Alice said to me, overcome with my emotion. "You did a lot for my family. I know we're all thankful for you."
"Because of you, we finally got that closure. We finally got it, and she was normal!" Natalie added.
Seeing Alice and her parents again, seeing that smile I first saw 18 years ago, now with the promise of many years more, makes me proud I'm part of Alice's legacy and the way she is today. "If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't be the way I am today," she said.
More tears. Goodbye, Alice...and goodbye, Mid-South.