Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Esquire executive editor Mark Warren and writer at large Tom Junod drove to Mississippi to visit the displaced families of National Guardsmen who had been killed in Iraq. During the reporting of that story (“Mississippi Goddamn”), they met Stephanie Lee, a young mother of two who had lost her husband, Specialist Terrance Lee. They were transfixed by her strength.
Stephanie Lee and Warren stayed in touch after the story. In the spring of 2013 she sent him a Facebook message saying she had cancer, and would he please pray for her. He and Junod did more than that—they brought her to Eric Schadt, who ran the newly created Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and Schadt said, “That’s exactly the kind of patient we take.”
The two ensuing profiles of Stephanie Lee—“Patient Zero” and “The Death of Patient Zero”—told the story of a woman whose heroism would help advance the cutting edge of cancer treatment. They also stretched the traditional relationship between journalists and their subject.
To mark the anniversary of Lee’s death last year, Junod and Warren are featured on the new Esquire Classic Podcast. In addition, here’s a conversation with Warren about this remarkable woman, her fight against cancer, and a story that would diametrically change his life.
Esquire Classic: How did you and Tom Junod first meet Stephanie Lee?
Mark Warren: In early August 2005, a month before Katrina hit, I was in southwest Mississippi in a town called Carriere, about an hour away from New Orleans. It was a town of trailer parks, basically. I was there to do a profile of a soldier [Sergeant Larry Arnold Sr.] who had just been killed that June.… One month later I sat in my office [in New York] and watched on my computer as Carriere got the eye of Katrina and thought, Jesus fucking Christ, how much can one family lose?
Tom and I decided we had to go take a look at the doubly devastated: those who’d lost a father, son, brother to the war that year and then had lost everything again. I got on a plane to Atlanta. It was as close as I could get [to New Orleans], and Tom lives in Atlanta. We rented a van, filled it with supplies—we planned on giving them away but didn’t end up doing much of that.
EC: And you went to see Sergeant Arnold’s son.
MW: Larry Arnold Jr. had gotten in a van after Katrina and driven north [with his family] until they felt safe. They were in a town called Dumas, Arkansas, in a Days Inn. He told me, “We wouldn’t have been able to afford to evacuate without my daddy’s death benefit.” So they were sitting in this shitty Days Inn in Dumas, Arkansas, spending their death benefit while their town got destroyed.
Tom and I drove from Atlanta to Dumas, got there at nightfall. Met with the entire Arnold family. We said, “Larry, we’re going down to your town to see what’s left of your house and your town. Do you want to come with us?” I had decided we should also go see what had become of the family of the young black man [Lee] who had been killed alongside Larry Arnold. We got to Moss Point [Lee’s hometown] a few days later. The roads were destroyed. You had to take detour after detour.
I had a phone number. I had a flip phone … and somehow I got enough of a signal to call the grandparents of Terrance Lee. An old man answered the phone. The worst stutter I’d ever heard. But I could understand him enough and he could understand me. His name was Robert E. Lee. Robert Earl Lee, a seventy-year-old black guy in Moss Point, Mississippi.
And I said, “Mr. Lee, I’m sorry, I’m a stranger but I’m from Esquire magazine and I’d like to talk to you about your grandson.” And he said, “Welp, she does all the talking”—meaning his wife, Aniece—“she’s at church right now, but come on by.” So we found the house, and we spent hours talking with the Lees about Terrance.
After a few hours, Aniece said, “Do you want to meet Terrance’s widow?” I didn’t know he was married. “Do you want to meet Terrance’s baby?” I didn’t know he had a baby. And that’s how we, quite accidentally, met Stephanie Lee.
She was thirty miles up the road in Lucedale. She had just given birth to Marchelle, Terrance’s daughter whom he would obviously never know, a couple of days before. Marchelle was four days old when we first met her. That day in 2005 was such a powerful one for both Tom and me. But Tom is a professional [writer]. I’m not. It got to me in a human way that nothing ever has. I had tears in my eyes the whole day. It was quite something.
EC: It was clear from that first story how resilient Stephanie was.
MW: She comes from complete wreckage, making her existence even more miraculous. A lot of members of her family—a vast, deeply dysfunctional family—wanted some of what she had. She had it together. She was trying to make something of her life.
EC: They wanted some of her competency, or her light?
MW: All of it. One of the constant refrains with Stephanie, one of the great indicators of success in life is, “Can you pay your bills?”… That was the demarcation line of success and failure, of whether you had it together or not. Stephanie had it together. She attracted an array of family and admirers who wanted some of what she had. I’m not speaking materially here, exactly. Just the light you referred to.
EC: When she wrote to you that she had cancer, you decided to get involved in her life personally—and ultimately to continue telling her story in Esquire. Can you talk about how you arrived at that decision?
MW: Tom and I blew through every caution sign between journalist and subject. Those rules exist for a good reason, but they typically deal with not compromising journalism that’s about powerful people, and the public’s right to know about whether the journalism is honest or in any way compromised. In my view, they don’t typically apply when you’re talking about a war widow dying of cancer in southern Mississippi. And then we decided, once we were in it, as we continued to get more and more involved….
EC: Did you write back to Stephanie immediately?
MW: We wrote back and forth for the next ten days—how are you feeling, what did the doctors say? Then finally I said, “Do you want to talk?” She said, “Oh, God, would you mind? I need it. I have friends, I have family, but they don’t really understand. They’ll just let me know how hard this is on them.” Writing and then talking—there’s something therapeutic about the voice of a stranger.
That was early May. By the middle of June, she’d healed from her surgery and was about to start chemo when she had another scan and found out it was terminal. By then we were talking every day. On that day, in her kitchen, she was saying, “I’m going to beat this. I’m going to see my daughters become women, I’m going to meet my grandbabies, I’m going to be a grandmother to my grandbabies.” And she’s slapping her hand on the countertop. And then she just dissolved into tears. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair. Marchelle can’t be alone before she’s ten years old.” From that point forward there was that dynamic of determination, this kind of warrior spirit and realism in the same space at the same time.
EC: Man, having optimism and realism in the same space is a complicated thing to understand.
MW: What I came to learn is that there is no such thing as false hope. There is hope. And part of the philosophical proposition of hope—embedded in it—is the possibility that that which is hoped for might not come to pass. So there you have it: Hope is a risk. Life is a risk. And you can take very, very different approaches to this kind of news. And this is the approach she chose to take because she had the girls to live for.
We were always cautioning. She and I had this conversation dozens of times with Tom, about being realistic. Nothing that was going on [with the doctors] was changing her prognosis. And: Let’s be careful about expectations. But full steam ahead. As long as you want to fight, we’ll fight with you. We’ll be here with you.
EC: What were you getting out of this?
MW: I don’t know. That’s a central question. Tom and I talk about it all the time. If Stephanie had written me that same note at a different time in my life or my career, I can easily see saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. Good luck, please let us know how you’re doing.” Sort of a distancing move. Which would have been perfectly legitimate. But for some reason I didn’t do that.
I came to understand a couple of things. When Stephanie found out that she was terminal, I’d been at Esquire twenty-five years and a day. And I realized, You know what? We’re in this. It was profound and totally destabilizing and totally unexpected and important to realize I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years and this is something thoroughly new, 100 percent new. We’ve never been here before.
EC: You mean having that kind of personal relationship with a subject?
MW: Yeah. Because this person asked for nothing but a little care. And what I decided is if we couldn’t have a human response, I don’t know what we’re doing. Part of it, I realize now, was a frustration with the limits of story, and I want to test what the limits of a story can be. Full engagement. As long as you tell readers what you’re doing.… As long as you do that, as long as you’re forthcoming and thoroughly transparent, then how could we not try to help? So we did. I’m not speaking figuratively when I say that Tom and I got a lot more out of this than we gave. It’s just a fact.
EC: How much did your being a father play into this?
MW: I think absolutely it did. The first day we met Stephanie I was like, “Get it together, Mark.” I had tears in my eyes. And Tom, a thorough professional, told me proudly, “I’ve never gotten emotional on a story, in an interview, with a subject, ever, ever.” And Tom’s one of the greatest of all time.
But the older I get … when you open yourself up to stories you open yourself up to people, and if you open yourself up to people you make yourself vulnerable. You risk something. And to me that’s a good thing. It’s taught me to say yes to things more. Not heedless, not stupid or thoughtless, but to say yes. If at all possible, say yes. Don’t say no.
EC: To be a generous person, you mean?
MW: Yes, but also to be open to stories as well.… Part of that is being a father, having kids. Being at a different point in life. Looking for deeper meaning, looking for deeper engagement, I guess, is all probably part of it.
EC: Reading the stories about Stephanie Lee, I found the central theme that kept coming back to me was the feeling of helplessness that is the human condition. How much frustration, rage, acceptance did you experience?
MW: We realized at a certain point that Stephanie was in the vanguard of something, and that when you’re in the vanguard of something you fail and fail and fail until you succeed. We knew that [the scientists] were learning a lot from Stephanie, but the key question was: Could they turn it to her benefit in time? The answer ended up being no. As we watched that and saw the great confidence and even arrogance of the scientists humbled, their confidence shaken, their experience of setbacks, their sense of hope—getting good results followed by less hopeful results—that was all very humbling. We realized, especially as we were running out of time and dealing with a ticking clock, that Stephanie ceased being the subject of a story for us.
EC: She was family.
MW: She was family. When we would have an experience with her, or an argument with a doctor or scientist, or when I was racing with her to get to the hospital in New Orleans to get the problem in her gut fixed, when I was yelling at charge nurses at 3 a.m. to get her pain medication, the last thing I was thinking was How’s this going to be in the story? It wasn’t that anymore. It was something much, much different. Once begun, we had to see this through. She asked me to take this walk with her. One of the most humbling things anybody has ever asked me to do. In some ways my family loaned Stephanie a husband and father for a while.
EC: Was your wife understanding?
MW: Extremely, incredibly. She came to know and love Stephanie too. My kids, also.
EC: Once you jumped into the story of Stephanie’s treatment, how much did you try to use your position at Esquire to get things done for her?
MW: Well, that was part of it. After Tom talked about Stephanie to Eric Schadt, and he said, “That’s exactly the kind of patient we take,” we thought, Let’s see what we can do here. Let’s push. Let’s get all the resources that rich people have in their frictionless lives to a poor war widow from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Let’s avail all those resources to her—a world-renowned hospital and medical school. They took very, very good care of her at Mount Sinai.
EC: What was the reaction from the medical community after you and Tom published your first profile of Stephanie, “Patient Zero”?
MW: It was overwhelming, it was really positive. That piece—especially at Mount Sinai, it careened around the institution. Everyone in the entire place was made to read it. She was a star. Especially the scene [in the article] where Eric is giving us the tour of his lab and you have these two Russian scientists, these two brilliant mathematicians [who had worked on analyzing Stephanie’s genetic data]. And in walks Stephanie. One of them was quite poised and continued talking about what they were doing; the other one was speechless, eyes filled with tears. He took Stephanie’s hand and said, “You’re a person, you’re a person.” He was in awe. He’d never met a person before, attached to this data. It’d only been data. It was a very moving moment.
EC: Was there something special about Stephanie that elicited that kind of response?
MW: Yeah, there was something remarkable about her that is intangible. This light, as you described, or whatever. She shone. Tom always said, “You’re a star, Stephanie, you’re a star.” He didn’t mean that in a Hollywood sense—he meant it in a literal sense: You’re a star, burning bright.
EC: Even though the research ultimately didn’t cure Stephanie’s cancer, do you get the sense that her fight helped others?
MW: There’s no question about it. [Mount Sinai] now has an official clinical trial going on over there with up to 150 people. I know two women who came to that clinical trial—almost the same diagnosis as Stephanie, almost the same age as Stephanie, both with two young kids—who came there because of Stephanie. Stephanie was a hero. Every protocol in that clinical trial bears Stephanie’s imprint; every procedure and process in that lab bears Stephanie’s imprint. Everything they learned from Stephanie they applied in how the lab operated moving forward. The sense of purpose that gave her, the sense of purpose that it gave her suffering, was profound—a big fucking deal.
EC: How did getting personally involved in Stephanie’s care affect you, especially after the tide began to turn against her?
MW: You don’t intend to become intimately involved with every aspect of somebody’s life. Making critical decisions for them when they can’t do it for themselves. You don’t intend to do that. I don’t recommend it. It doesn’t happen overnight. I’m so grateful for the experience. I’m so lucky to have known her. I can’t believe she’s gone. See, ’cause it became kind of breakneck, we were racing against the clock to get her treated. Fighting and pushing and fighting and fighting and fighting and then suddenly it was over. Abruptly. I’m still processing it.
EC: Did you shake your fist and say, “Why?”
MW: I’m not a believer, so I don’t know who I’d be shaking my fist at. And I’m a bit of a fatalist, a bit of an existentialist of the southeast Texas variety—whatever that means—and so I’ve always kind of dwelled there in my head. I don’t ask why. Meeting Stephanie, knowing Stephanie, loving Stephanie, seeing what happened to Stephanie did underscore in a deeply personal, raw, and close-to-the-bone way just the unfairness of life. I do continue to mull over the questions about what can be done about those things.
EC: The unfairness of existence?
MW: Mmm-hmm. But those feelings are overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude and love. It changed my life. As painful, harrowing, and horrible as it could be at times—not for me, for her—I’m so happy to have had this experience with her.
For more on Stephanie Lee, listen to Warren and Junod on the new Esquire Classic Podcast.