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The gift of giving
Thanks to two doctors, Ebony Howard knows all about spirit of the season 
By Ramona Shelburne
Staff Writer 

Linked to original posting site at:,1413,200%7E20955%7E1072209,00.html

Los Angeles Daily News

Tuesday, December 24, 2002 - Ebony Howard proudly insisted that this not be a "poor Ebony" story. Still, she knew she needed help.

Howard, a junior basketball player at Antelope Valley High of Lancaster, ripped a ligament in her left knee before spring break last year, threatening to rob her of the one passion in her life.

"I tell myself that if I keep playing and God wants me to tear up my knee, I'll tear up my knee. And if he wants it to get better, it will get better. And if God wants me to get help, someone will help me. I just try not to worry about it anymore," she said, handing her future to the whims of fate.

Soon, someone would answer her prayers.

I first met Ebony Howard outside the Valencia High gymnasium on a cold night in early December. Her basketball coach, April Davenport, had told me about her player's injury, and I wanted to find out why after more than six months she had yet to have the surgery she needed to repair the torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.

In March, Ebony had landed awkwardly during a pickup game with her teammates at Antelope Valley High. Since then, she has had surgery scheduled twice through her insurance carrier, Kaiser Permanente, only to be sent home each time because of last-minute questions about consent.

The second time, after she already had changed into a gown and climbed onto a gurney, Howard was so frustrated she decided to forgo the surgery altogether and play basketball this season, hoping a brace would provide sufficient support.

It didn't. Her knee ached as she lay in bed to sleep each night because she could afford only an inexpensive brace. The appropriate custom brace costs several thousand dollars, which was well beyond her family's means.

I watched Ebony play that night at Valencia. She maintained a brave front, regularly flashing her dazzling smile as if nothing were wrong. It was obvious, though, that she was an incomplete player. Last year, as a sophomore, she was a slashing guard who started almost every game, and Davenport expected her to develop into a college-level player. This season, her role has been reduced as she has struggled to regain her natural quickness and agility.

She cheers from the sidelines much of the time but, when her guard is down, seems to sink into deep thought as she cradles her face in her hands.

A few weeks after that night, at a holiday party, I told my family about Ebony. How she continued to play basketball with a cumbersome blue brace she had nicknamed "Susie" and how the first doctor she had seen told her to "put some ice on it and come back in six weeks."

Everyone who heard the story was incensed.

"That brace won't do anything for her," said my Aunt Phyllis, who had the same injury a few years ago. "You need a custom brace. She's going to ruin her knee. Why didn't they do the surgery?"

"The first time, her 19-year-old cousin brought her to the appointment, and they said she needed her guardian's consent," I explained. "So the second time, her aunt, whom she's been living with while her mom is away at a drug-rehab center, took her to the appointment, and this time she was told the girl needed her mother's consent.

"The aunt had already signed a consent form, and she asked whether they could just fax it to her sister in the rehab facility in Santa Fe Springs, but they said no."

My Uncle Norm had been quiet through the entire story.

"Norm, don't know you know someone over at SCOI (Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Van Nuys)?" Phyllis asked, turning to her brother-in-law.

"Yeah, I was thinking that the whole time you were telling me the story," said Norm, who is a partner at company that manages outpatient facilities.

"Here's my cell phone number, call me tomorrow and I'll see what I can do. I'm not promising anything, but Ill try."

I called Norm the next day, and he told me there was a good chance Dr. Marc Friedman would perform the surgery free of charge. Norm's brother, Steve, played tennis with an anesthesiologist, Dr. Jerry Mitchell, and would try to get him on board, too.

Finally, about a week later, Norm told me it was all set, that Dr. Friedman and Dr. Mitchell had offered to do the surgery, which normally would cost at least $7,000.

"There's no tax write-off, you just do it," said Dr. Mitchell, the anesthesiologist and medical director of the Center for Orthopedic Surgery Inc. "She's a young girl, an athlete, and it's nice to be able to help a young person like that. Believe it or not, doing stuff like this makes us feel good about ourselves. It's why we went into this."

Dr. Friedman, the orthopedic surgeon, had been the physician specialist for soccer at the 1984 Olympic Games as well as for the New York Knicks and New York Jets. He had been a basketball player himself at Princeton.

"This is for the long-term health of her knee," Dr. Friedman said. "You can damage the cartilage of the knee if you don't repair a torn ligament, and that's more important in the long term. I know a lot of the doctors at Kaiser. They are quality doctors, quality guys, but it's the system that gets them.

"It seems like this case just slipped through the cracks."

I went to the doctor's office at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City, where Ebony and her aunt, Sheila Lair-Williams, had tried to arrange the surgery. Officials there had no comment and said they couldn't release her medical information.

The next day, I decided to tell Ebony in person two doctors were willing to help her.

The Antelope Valley girls' basketball team had left school early that day to avoid Friday-afternoon traffic on the way to their game at Chatsworth High.

I had called Davenport the night before to tell her world-class doctors had offered to perform the surgery, and she was overjoyed.

And true to her word, Davenport, who had paid for Ebony's physical therapy and took care of her the first few agonizing days after the injury, had kept the secret the entire afternoon.

But the Chatsworth High gymnasium hardly seemed the appropriate setting for such a moment.

I saw Ebony sitting with her teammates before the junior varsity game, but my eyes were still adjusting to the bright orange walls of the gym that cast a strange glow over everything and everyone inside.

We sat alone about 10 rows up in the bleachers. I interviewed her for a few minutes about nothing in particular, while the Chatsworth scorekeeper tested the 30-second clock by ringing the buzzer over and over.

I asked how her knee was feeling and how the team had been doing. She looked down at her knee and said it was fine, except that she couldn't straighten it all the way.

Then I began to tell her about the party, about Norm and Steve and how they both said, "I might know some doctors who can help."

She looked down the entire time I spoke, this 17-year-old whom Davenport once told me "had been let down too many times in her life.

"She needed a break, she deserved one," Davenport had told me.

I wondered whether Ebony had guessed my secret, but she continued to look down. I wondered whether she would believe me.

"Ebony," I said, "what if I told you that these two doctors want to help you? That they offered to do your surgery for free?"

"Oh, my God, are you serious?" she said, while her hand tried to conceal the bright smile that had crept across her face.

She rolled back with a gentle laugh, almost embarrassed by the magnitude of the moment, and lifted her head to meet my eyes.

I asked what she would say to the doctors?

"I don't know," Ebony said, "if I can say anything to them."

Surgery is scheduled for early next year.