Amazing Grace: Inspired by dad's situation, daughter pushes through state legislation

Amazing Grace: Inspired by dad's situation, daughter pushes through state legislation

GIBSON CITY — Wherever she turned, it seemed, people tried to lower Grace Lattz's expectations.

You're so young. Well, you can try. Don't expect too much.

Then 15 years old, she remembers hearing the same phrases over and over as she ran around the Capitol in Springfield with her self-made business cards, setting up appointments with lawmakers' schedulers and talking to doormen.

She stopped anyone who would listen to the story of her family's grief, pain and recovery after an accident on the job nearly killed her dad, former Champaign firefighter Jeff Lattz.

She was there to push what started as a homework assignment and ended as an actual legislative bill, one that called for doing away with the requirement that firefighters injured in the line of duty relive the details of their trauma during annual medical examinations for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill is currently on the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner, awaiting one final stamp of approval. With or without his blessing, though, SB 3119 is poised to become law after passing overwhelmingly in both the state House and Senate.

"Injustice gets me riled up," Grace, now 16, said with a smile and both fists clenched in the air. And to her, nothing was more unjust than making it a condition of her father's pension that he discuss with a doctor the near-death experience that landed him in the hospital for months, upended his family's lives and left him with mental wounds that are still healing.

She was furious when she saw her dad come back from his first yearly medical review, and again after his second, broken down by the doctor's mandatory questions.

"It's like ripping the scab off of a healing wound," she said, arguing that the annual exams for former firefighters like her father "set them back in their treatment and therapy — and then they send those same struggles and setbacks back to their families."

Getting the bill to Rauner's desk was as challenging as writing it.

The first version she came up with died in the pits of the House rules committee. So she, mother Emily Lattz, and a few helpful lawmakers reworked the bill and reintroduced it at the start of this year as two amendments to an already-existing piece of legislation.

Once it made it through several back-and-forths at the committee level, and Grace and her mother both testified, they ramped up the pressure on lawmakers to pass it. Three to four times a week for two months, Emily Lattz said, she and Grace would drive from their home north of Gibson City to Springfield and get to work.

"I did a lot of my own lobbying," Grace said, pulling out a folder she organized with the texts of bills, statements and the business cards she "passed out to the different secretaries and assistants. I found out how to do a rail call and pull members from the floor. Some of the secretaries showed me different things on the computer, and they told me who would help me.

"I got, like, the best stair workout ever in the Capitol, too."

In late May, SB 3119 — which deals with different parts of the state pension code — unanimously passed the state Senate and cleared the House by a 106-4 vote. Rauner hasn't expressed opposition to the bill, said Grace, who has arranged to meet with the governor — one of the few Springfield politicians she hasn't pitched in person — later this month.

The purpose? "To put a face and story behind that bill," Grace said, "and why it was so important for a 15-year-old to write that bill and push it to the end."

The fire

Layalina Mediterranean Grill had been in business for two weeks when Champaign firefighters were called at 2:45 on a Saturday morning about the large-scale fire at 40 E. Springfield Ave.

The Nov. 16, 2013, blaze took about 30 firefighters to put out, in part because it was so difficult to find, then-Fire Chief Doug Forsman said afterward.

Two firefighters were searching the second-floor apartment for occupants and flames amid the smoke-filled structure. Unknown to them, fire had broken out below them.

Lt. Jeff Lattz sprung into action.

"I happened to be in a place where I could attempt to do something," he said. "I told them to get out immediately, but they didn't answer. I ran up to the stairs on the first floor. I was 8 feet past the door, so I had full visibility inside the first floor and saw it was all smoke upstairs. I couldn't see anything."

He knew the combination of smoke, gas and air could intensify the blaze.

"I saw it developing very rapidly," Jeff Lattz said last week, still visibly bothered by the memory. "The building had been filled up with a lot of gases and smoke. All it needed was air."

The next thing he knew, fire had enveloped the entire staircase, and he was pelted by smoldering debris. From there, everything went black.

A rapid intervention team from Urbana was right outside the door when what they described as a violent ignition sent furniture and debris flying everywhere. First responders managed to drag Jeff out, strip off his gear, put large-pore IVs in him, get a breathing tube down his throat and rush him to the hospital.

Had they waited another five seconds, Jeff is certain he would have died.

In the burn unit, as the sedatives were taking effect, and he was breathing through a ventilator, a somewhat-conscious Jeff motioned to Emily for a pencil.

"The very first thing he wrote is, 'Did Engine 151 make it out?'" she said, her voice quivering. "While in a coma under all that sedation, that's what he wanted to know."

"Then I wrote 'I'm sorry, I love you,'" Jeff added. "Very sloppy, but I somehow did it."

The recovery

Mom remembers her four children — Grace the oldest — being "pretty scared when we finally went home."

"I thought he was looking better," Emily said. "But they hadn't seen him yet because originally we didn't know if he was going to live, so I didn't want them to see their dad like that as their last memory."

Emily wanted to ease her children into seeing their dad out of a hospital room. She took her two sons to her mother's while Grace and her sister stayed with a friend.

After a short while, the kids returned home, still a little nervous about their father's physical state.

"The burns weren't horrible," Jeff said. "I didn't need any skin grafts or anything. Well ..."

"But I debrided your wounds twice a day for six weeks," Emily interrupted.

"Yeah," Jeff said. "I had a lot of plastic melted into my scalp that took six weeks probably to get that out. Hair burned off in the back ..."

"We covered much of our furniture in towels because he oozed from everywhere," Emily recalled. "His ears were from the bottom of my hand to my top knuckle ..."

"And he couldn't use a pillow," Grace interjected.

As Jeff recovered over the next few months and started to look more like his old self, his road to recovery took another turn.

Said Emily: "We learned that the body heals first ..."

"And then the brain," Grace and Emily said together.

Jeff said he started experiencing signs of PTSD. At first, his wife said, seeking treatment seemed like an uphill battle.

Seeing her father struggle the way he did gave the Lattzes' homeschooled daughter an idea.

Grace studied up on PTSD and turned her TeenPact Leadership School assignment into a draft of the bill she'd eventually try to sell to state lawmakers.

It was her own unique way to cope, Grace said.

"When you survive something where your body and your mind thought you were dying, those neuropathways are gone. It's something your body can't heal from. There's no cure, and there's nothing to be done but management," she said. "What happened to my family, and my dad is what inspired this. But the fact remains that there are other families going through this, as well.

"I'm doing this for them, too."

The future

As she enters her last school year before college, Grace has already started working on her next bill, which she hopes to introduce this fall.

It's similar to her first effort in that it would change the pension system and help her dad. The measure would allow for cost-of-living adjustments for any firefighter who can't work because of a line-of-duty PTSD disability.

"It's to help prevent our firefighters from having a yearly eroding of their purchasing power due to the rising costs of inflation," Grace said. "It's to make sure we're not de-incentivizing our firefighters from giving their all out of the fear if they go in and end up going off the job on a line-of-duty disability, that then they are subjecting themselves and their families to a lesser quality of life."

As state policy reads now, when a firefighter suffers a career-ending line-of-duty disability, his or her wages are frozen at what they earned at the time of the disability. That means Jeff, injured at 40, wouldn't see a bump until he turns 60, he said.

"Because of that, we have increasingly less purchasing power and ability," Emily said. "It's changed how we look at things, the way we budget things."

Fighting for her family has Grace considering a future in politics.

"As of right now, I'm working toward next year getting into a nursing program, with a minor in Spanish and medical science. I want to become a lobbyist and may even run for state representative or state senator," she said. "But that's a ways off. Right now, I'm still homeschooled, but I only have two classes left for my senior year."

All of those trips to Springfield taught her a lot — "about perseverance and not giving up. With politics, things can be unpredictable. But if you keep pushing and remain patient, you can get further than you realized.

"Sometimes," Grace said, "taking little steps is better. Small steps in the right direction eventually add up."