The Ultimate Sacrifice: NPR
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When Joe and Yvonne Jackson found out their youngest son, Cole, was on the brink of life or death, they never imagined what they'd have to give up in order to save his life.
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Now for our first story, SNAP JUDGEMENT's Nancy Lopez is going to kick things off in the Republic of Texas.
NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: When Yvonne Jackson gave birth to her youngest son, Cole, everything seemed to be normal.
YVONNE JACKSON: A friend of mine had came over to see the new baby. We noticed that Cole had some little red dots all over him - it kind of almost looked like heat rash. I said, I think I should probably call the pediatrician. For some reason something's telling me I need to get him in there.
LOPEZ: Yvonne took Cole to the hospital where they ran a few blood tests. She was told to return in a couple of hours, so she dropped off her two older kids and her mother-in-law's.
Y. JACKSON: And as I pulled back into the parking lot, I saw Laura, the nurse practitioner, standing at the door. And I thought it was to unlock it and as soon as I walked up, Dr. Horner said - I mean, it was like, simultaneously - she said, Yvonne, I'm going to take you to the office, and Dr. Horner grabbed Cole and just ran down this long hallway. I was little in shock because at that time, I just thought - I mean, I thought it was a heat rash - you know, I just thought it was going to be something simple. There was never a thought in my head that Cole had this horrible disease.
LOPEZ: Yvonne's husband Joe was a truck driver. She says Joe was out on the road, and she didn't want to give him the bad news over the phone. So she waited a couple of weeks until he got back.
Y. JACKSON: I had Cole with me. I said, the baby's sick. He said, well, what do we have to do to get him fixed?
LOPEZ: It took six months before the doctors were able to give the Jacksons an answer. Turns out, Cole was born with the rare immunodeficiency disease known as Wiskott Aldrich syndrome.
Y. JACKSON: I was honestly relieved at that point thinking hey, we know what this is, we're going to get this fixed and that's that.
LOPEZ: But the disease is life-threatening. The immune system is defenseless and even a cold can be fatal. The doctors told Yvonne and Joe that Cole needed a bone marrow transplant and he needed one fast. They told him...
Y. JACKSON: That he would never see his third birthday, which would've been July. They said that's the only thing that could save him. That without that, that Cole would die.
LOPEZ: The problem now was money. The entire procedure cost $250,000, and the Jacksons needed half of that just to get the baby into the hospital. There other problem - they lost Cole's health insurance when a monthly fee didn't clear their bank account. They had no idea how they were going to come up with all that money. The doctors told them there was another option - they could send hospice in until the baby passed away.
Y. JACKSON: You don't tell a parent that you're going to keep their child as comfortable as possible just because they don't have the money. So you're saying that if I've got tons of money, my child can live, but if I don't have any money, my child needs to die? That shouldn't have been - that shouldn't have even been the question.
LOPEZ: They sold everything but their house. They sold Joe's second truck, some trailers and tools. They organized fundraisers, they had bake sales and car washes and rodeos.
Y. JACKSON: We called our Senators. We called everyone. I mean, we seriously called everyone that we knew at that time that we thought might be able to help us.
LOPEZ: But by the two-year deadline the doctors had given Yvonne and Joe to get Cole in the hospital, they had only raised $52,000. Then their prayers were answered. When word spread about their cause, an organization stepped up and matched it. Now with $100,000 the hospital agreed to go ahead with Cole's operation. But they still felt way too short. The hospital told them they still had to pay out the other $150,000.
Y. JACKSON: I would probably say I panicked a little more than Joe because I was worried that you know, what would happen if we didn't get the money. And I remember one night he just said, I'm going to give in, I'm not going to let him die. And he said, so don't worry. Your worry is to get Cole to the doctor, make sure the kids are good and safe and take care of them, and I'll make sure we get the money to get him well. He said this is your worry and I'll take care of the rest, because it's my job to take care of you all.
LOPEZ: Joe was on the road 24/7 hauling produce from Colorado back to Texas. Than hauling cattle to California and back again. And miraculously enough, he was covering all of the family's expenses, Cole's ever-increasing medical bills plus their mortgage.
Y. JACKSON: I think deep down maybe I knew that there was some - too much money coming in, but I also knew that it was getting the bills paid and we were able to stay at the hospital with Cole.
LOPEZ: Cole's transplant failed. As the doctors came up with the different treatment, the medical bills kept racking up - almost $5,000 a month. Joe kept assuring Yvonne that he was taking care of it. And somehow he was still getting everything paid. With time, Cole's health got more stable. He lived to see his third birthday and then his fourth. Life seemed to be finally getting a bit easier for the Jacksons. That is, until one morning.
Y. JACKSON: I was trying to get breakfast - get lunches packing and get the two kids ready for school and someone came over a loudspeaker and said, we need everyone in the house to come out with their hands up. I looked out the door and I said, what the heck is this? It went through my head that maybe they were at the wrong house. And so I told April - I said, April get John and Cole and go get on my bed and don't get off until I come back in the house because you know, they get a little gun happy or something - I don't want none of you all to get hurt. So stay in this house no matter what happens. Just stay in this house. I walked out the door with my arms up like they said.
First they have like, all these little red dot lasers on you. So I'm holding my hands up and then this guy just comes running by me - like, grabs me up like a sack of potatoes and runs me over to the other side of our - the driveway. He sat me down and this guy said, are you Yvonne Jackson and I went, yeah. Who's in the house? And I said, my kids are in the house. So April, Jackson, Cole and John - he said their whole names - are the only ones in the house? I said, yes sir. I said how did you know? And I'm like how did you know us? What's going on here? They really wasn't talking. They were just, you know, like, everybody was tons of people everywhere - the ATF coming to find out and the DA and all that were there. And he said, we're looking for your husband. We've got a warrant for his arrest. I said, for what? And then he starts telling me, well, he's been, you know, hauling drugs. What? I said, have you lost your mind? And so I told the guy, listen I'm going in to get my kids. And he said, no. You go in there and, you know, we'll shoot you. And I said, well, I guess you're going to have to shoot me because I'm going to go get the kids. They're scared, I've got to go get my kids right now. I just took off for the house.
LOPEZ: They didn't shoot. Yvonne rushed to gather up her kids and try to figure out what to do next. She was told not to return to the house for the rest of the day.
Y. JACKSON: I'm just, like, so confused at this point and scared and don't know what's going on. And so I actually dropped off my oldest son. I don't know why. I look back now and think I wish I hadn't done that. But I did drop him at school. And then my daughter says, I'm not going Mom. I'm staying with you because I'm scared. I said, me too. I don't know what's going on. Let's go to Nanny's.
LOPEZ: Yvonne spent the day just waiting for night to fall. That's usually when Joe called.
Y. JACKSON: He called me that night and I said, these people came into the house that he was like, what? So I told him what happened. He said, don't worry; I'll take care of it. It's OK. Don't worry about nothing. It's OK. It's OK. You know, I knew what had happened, what was going on at that point. He ended up hauling some drugs and they paid him to do that. And he did it to come up with the money for Cole.
LOPEZ: For two years, Joe was transporting methamphetamine. He would get a grand for every pound of meth he carried from California to Texas. A typical load was up to $11,000 worth of meth. Enough to pay for Cole's medical expenses. Joe turned himself in. The federal court in Fort Worth found him guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine. At trial, the defense presented letters and evidence to show that the reason Joe did what he did was because it was his last resort. It was the only way to pay for his son's transplant. But the judge, notorious for his harsh sentences, didn't bat an eye. He sentenced Joe to life.
Y. JACKSON: Hi, Joe.
JOE JACKSON: How are you doing?
Y. JACKSON: I'm good how are you?
J. JACKSON: I'm doing all right.
LOPEZ: Joe has been locked up now for nearly 19 years. He's been moved around a lot and currently finds himself in a low security federal prison in Arkansas. He gets to talk on the phone five hours a month - but only in 15 minute increments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Fifteen minutes, right?
J. JACKSON: Yes ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.
J. JACKSON: But, you know, if you need more time, we'll have to wait 30 minutes and I'll call you back.
LOPEZ: Joe's days are pretty much on repeat. He talks with Yvonne and the kids on the phone every week. He works at the prison grocery store, making 75 cents an hour. He gets off at five and that's when he calls me one Tuesday. Joe tells me that even after all this time, he clearly remembers what he told the judge when he sentenced him to life.
J. JACKSON: I said, you know, when that boy right there was dying and we tried every way in the world asking all of you people for help, every federal agency there was, you wouldn't help us. And I don't figure you're going to help me now. And that's exactly what I told the judge in my statement at sentencing. I done knew what I was fixing to get and it was over. My only regret was that he couldn't give me a death sentence. At least if I would've died or they would've put me to death my family could've got over it and got on with their lives. I hate it that my wife has sat out there by herself all these years. She works all day long and comes home to an empty house, you know.
LOPEZ: Joe has missed out on a lot - birthdays and graduations, watching his daughter get married, his grandchildren being born.
Joe, when you get look back is it something you would do again if faced with the same circumstance?
J. JACKSON: Well, you're asking me if I'd do anything different? I didn't like what I had to do then and I wouldn't like it if I had to do it now. I'm telling you what. I'm glad that I had that avenue to get big money fast other than say, walking in a bank with the gun because I would've done whatever I had to do. Do you have kids miss Lopez?
LOPEZ: I don't. I don't.
J. JACKSON: You'll understand when you have them. Believe me. It's still a blessing to me to have my kids healthy.
LOPEZ: Doctors never thought Cole would live past five and now he's 24. He has high blood pressure and takes a bunch of pills to boost his immune system. But overall he's pretty healthy. I talked to Cole and he says that growing up it took him a while to understand why his dad did what he did. Now that he's an adult he gets it. And actually, he can't help but live with some guilt about it.
J. JACKSON: I know it weighs on him. But I don't want Cole to feel guilty about it. It's not Cole's fault I'm here. I'll tell you, if I'm going to bring a child into this world then it's my duty to make sure he's got the best chance there is. And if he's sick like mine was I'm a sorry son-of-a-bitch if I wouldn't give my life to save his.
WASHINGTON: Thank you, Joe and Yvonne, for sharing your story. I keep thinking that if my kids were in trouble I might have a cell right next to Joe. If you're wondering, Joe may be a candidate for a special presidential pardon given to nonviolent drug offenders with clean prison records. We wish you the best, Joe. To learn more about Joe and his family's story check out reporter Malcolm Garcia's article at geurnicamag.com, we'll have a link as well at snapjudgment.org. That story was produced by Nancy Lopez with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.
Now when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, you don't need shoes to crash a plane. And sometimes nature is not your friend. When SNAP JUDGMENT'S Desperate Measures Episode continues. Stay Tuned.
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