Every once in a while you come across a story that really hits you. And after producing countless stories during my six years at “GMA”, there is one story that really hit me.
Janne Kouri was smart, affable, had the world at his fingertips, could have played in the NFL, could have done a zillion things. From early conversations with Janne’s friends, I got the sense that he was the type of guy who just took charge. He decided what he wanted to do, then did it.
But life threw him a curveball on August 5, 2006. He dove into the ocean, fractured his spinal cord in a freak accident, and was instantly paralyzed. In the hospital for months, he developed pneumonia and nearly died, twice. Doctors told him he’d never walk, would never have a normal life. They had seen people in his condition before, and the reality, they whispered, was grim.
The real reality, though, is this: They had no idea who they were dealing with.
Janne and his then-girlfriend Susan scoured the country for a doctor who had some answers. Fortunately, a friend connected them with the Christoper and Dana Reeve Foundation, and they, in turn, put Janne in touch with Dr. Susie Harkema at Frazer Rehab in Louisville.
Dr. Harkema had developed a cutting-edge therapy called Locomotor Training and her words to Janne and Susan were simple but direct: “There’s hope.”
Flash forward three years to June 2009. I flew out to Los Angeles to produce our first story on Janne. When I walked into Next Step Fitness, he was lying on a mat, stretching with a trainer, and he waved me over as best he could. I remember standing over him, thinking to myself, oh man, how is this story going to work? I had come out to California because I was hoping to shoot him in his first attempts to walk with a walker. But I didn’t see it happening, no way, no how.
An hour later I stood and watched, my camera rolling and my jaw on the floor. Three years after doctors told him he’d never walk again, here he was, walking past me with a walker, his feet moving, left right, left right. Amazing. His story first aired on “GMA” in July of 2009. It was the most-watched story on ABCNews.com for a day, then a week, and on and on.
Time passed. We stayed in touch and last December I received a very short email from Janne’s wife, Susan. The title: “Check out Janne!”
There was a picture attached. In it, he was standing, no walker, no anything, smiling his confident smile at the camera. I just stood there in my kitchen looking at the picture on my BlackBerry. Wow. My second thought was: This is amazing, I need to get Janne back on “GMA” for an update story.
I sent the picture and his story around internally, and Robin jumped at the chance to tell his story again. A few weeks later I was back in Hermosa Beach, Calif., with Janne, shooting b-roll and prepping for his interview with Robin the next day. Over dinner that night – the night before the interview and the moment he would try and stand up on camera with Robin looking on – he had a golden idea. He said something to the effect of, “You know, when I am standing, I’d like to try and dance with Susan…to our wedding song. We’ve never done that. What do you think?”
It was a fantastic idea. So long as we could pull it off, it would be brilliant. We blocked it out, choreographed how it might all work. I wrestled with whether or not to tell Robin – some people don’t like surprises on camera (especially when they’re the anchor). But I took a gamble on this one. It would be a secret between Janne and I and however it happened, it would happen. And the cameras would be rolling…
I won’t go into detail about what happened that next day because you really ought to watch the piece. But I will say nearly everyone in the room was in tears, both afterward and during. Susan, Robin, his trainers. I will never forget it. It was an incredible, culminating moment.
When I first interviewed Janne in 2009, he said something that I can still hear in my ear like he said it yesterday.
“Eventually,” he said, “I’m getting rid of the walker and walking out of that gym. And, you know, I’m confident that I’m going to do it, and I understand that it’s not going to happen tomorrow…But it will happen one day.”
I can’t wait. And I hope to be there when he does it.