The Colgate Scene
September 2004

Reluctant hero

A documentary of Alex Jeong's inspirational story that was telecast in South Korea in December 2000 prompted an enthusiastic response and has sparked a reassessment of Korean cultural attitudes towards the disabled. [Photo by Rob Bennett]

To a large number of people, both in the United States and in his native South Korea, Alexander (Bom-Jin) Jeong '89 is a hero. Jeong will have none of that.

"I'm just a regular guy," said Jeong, the bureau chief of criminal court for the Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney's office.

To understand why this "regular guy" is held in such high esteem, one has to start with a rainy night in May 1991 on an interstate highway at the Virginia-Tennessee border. Jeong had completed his second year at George Washington University Law School and was driving to his parents' home in Dallas, where they owned and ran a small store.

Although he doesn't recall precisely what happened, after swerving onto a grassy median, Jeong lost control of his car, which rolled over "once or twice" before landing right side up.

"I remember waking up, the roof of the car was down on my head, and there was an extreme amount of pain in my neck," he said. "I was going in and out of consciousness, and I heard saws; they had to saw the roof open. The next thing I remember was being in the hospital, and my father was there."

Jeong suffered a broken neck in the accident, and lost all feeling from his chest down. After surgery during a five-day stay at a hospital in Bristol, Tenn., Jeong was flown by private jet to New York City, where he was admitted to the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Hospital. The husband of his mother's cousin was a director of rehabilitation at Rusk, which helped to expedite Jeong's admission.

"When I first got injured, even up to the point when I came to Rusk, I figured I'd be in the hospital for a while, and I'd be well. I had been to the hospital before when I was little, and I had always gone home completely well. I figured the same thing would happen," he recalled. "I don't know if it was because my doctor was related to me, but he never told me that I was never going to walk, but just from observing the other people with similar injuries in my hospital ward, and the physical therapists telling me stuff, I gradually learned that I would never walk and never use my hands again."

One year delay
Finishing law school was, understandably, one of the last things on Jeong's mind, and he didn't think about it until realizing that he was going to be a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life. When it hit, he said, that realization was overwhelming.

"It was very scary. I had a longtime girlfriend -- whom I'd met at Colgate -- and it was painful to think that I could never become the sort of boyfriend or the husband that she would want me to be, or become the sort of son that my parents wanted me to become," said Jeong.

In order to assist their son through his rehabilitation and convalescence, Jeong's parents gave up their home and business in Dallas and moved to Brooklyn within six months of the accident.

"By tradition, Korean culture is patriarchal, so my parents wanted to focus on their son doing well, so when the accident happened, they pretty much deserted everything, just left their house and the store and brought some of their personal belongings to New York," said Jeong, the middle child between two sisters. "My parents were absolutely devastated."

The Jeongs were devastated not only by what happened to their son, but also by the financial burdens of his convalescence. Being self-employed, they had no health insurance, and Jeong was forced to rely on Medicaid and Supplementary Security Income to get by. (Funds from Supplementary Security Income, more commonly called SSI, are considered loans. Jeong paid off the last of the loans in June.)

After six months of treatment at Rusk, and another six months of outpatient care, by the summer of 1993 Jeong was prepared to resume his legal education. But with his parents relocated to the Flushing section of Queens and being dependent on public assistance, Jeong realized it would be too costly to return to George Washington for his final year of law school. Instead, he enrolled in the City University of New York Law School. (Because he completed two years at George Washington, Jeong's law degree is from that institution.)

A relatively young institution, CUNY Law School doesn't attract many recruiters from prestigious law firms. The only recruiters Jeong met with were from a legal aid agency and the Brooklyn district attorney's office. He had long been interested in becoming a prosecutor, and his accident helped to heighten that interest.

"In Korea, it's considered a very prestigious position, because of the fact that just two percent of the people who take the bar exam become lawyers, and an even smaller percentage become prosecutors," said Jeong, who majored in Asian studies as an undergraduate.

As bureau chief of criminal court, Jeong oversees approximately 40 assistant district attorneys, supervising them in prosecuting the 250 to 300 misdemeanor cases that go to trial out of about 90,000 cases on the docket each year. He prepares for and travels to and from work with the assistance of a home health aide, and uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. In order to write, he has a pen taped to a hand splint.

"My penmanship has actually improved," he quipped.

Man of the Year
In 2000, Jeong's story of perseverance attracted the attention of the South Korean television network MBC-TV, which nationally televised a documentary of his life story on Christmas Eve. Jeong's inspirational story led MBC-TV to name him its Man of the Year for 2000, and prompted an enthusiastic response.

"Since then, I've been getting all these e-mails and stuff from women, some even proposing marriage, and they all wanted to meet me," said Jeong. "After that, a Korean publishing company contacted me and asked me if I was interested in writing a book. I can't write in Korean, so they sent a ghostwriter, and he interviewed me for a few weeks and then wrote the book."

During a tour of South Korea to promote the book, Jeong learned that the telecast of his story had helped stimulate a reassessment of how the country treats its disabled citizens.

"Koreans can be very prejudiced; they ostracize people who are different, including the disabled. That's one of the reasons why my parents were so devastated after the accident, because they thought that I would be an outcast in Korean society, and I would die alone," he said. "But just living my life, and being confident in who I am convinced them that I'm like anybody else."

It was during the book tour that Jeong met his fiancée, Soo-Young Lee, who is a well-known Internet entrepreneur in South Korea. "Soo-Young saw me on one of the talk shows. Somebody who knew both of us arranged for us to meet."

The couple is scheduled to marry this month and hope to start a family in the near future.

"I'm sure I would have been married by now, if not for the accident. Looking back, if I'd gotten married at such a young age, I don't know what type of husband I would have made," said Jeong. "But now, knowing what I know, I think I can be a better father and husband than if I'd married sooner."

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