If you get up very, very early, you may have seen me weekday mornings on Fox & Friends First since the show launched on Fox News Channel in 2012. I have just recently returned to my job as host of the 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. hour after an extended medical leave following a shocking medical emergency and surgery to avoid being paralyzed for the rest of my life.
I have been back to work for about a month, and while it hasn’t been easy, the response from people, most of whom I have never and will never meet, has been overwhelming. I originally decided to share my story with all of you reading this, along with my TV audience, because I felt like I needed to explain why I was going to be gone almost eight weeks, and to be honest, I didn’t want to be forgotten. One of the great things that ended up happening is hundreds of people reaching out to me, and to each other via social media, sharing their own similar stories and learning from a big mistake I made. I ignored the warning signs my body was sending me saying something was wrong.
Ignoring my symptoms was no longer a choice when my medical problem turned into a crisis in early July while I was hosting Fox & Friends First. Shooting pains started ricocheting through the right side of my head. I made it through the show and went home immediately afterward, hoping my ferocious headache would go away. It didn’t — for four long days.
I went in to the hospital for an MRI of my brain. Thankfully, I saw an outstanding neurologist who ordered an MRI not only of my brain, but also of my neck, after a series of tests on my reflexes. Then came the frightening news; “There’s a 100 percent chance you won’t be walking when you are older,” the doctor said. “You could hit a pothole the wrong way and be paralyzed right now.” What? Paralyzed? What was wrong with me?
I had a serious problem with my spine — something called cervical spinal stenosis with myelopathy. In plain English, that means my spinal cord was being dangerously compressed in my neck. I needed surgery as soon as possible to keep things from getting any worse, so I wouldn’t eventually become paralyzed because of spinal cord compression.
Turns out that the compression of my spine began years ago when I was in a car wreck as a 16-year-old, resulting in traumatic injuries to my head and neck. I didn’t know it, but the trauma to my neck had slowly been getting worse and worse over the years. I never even thought about my neck, and as a result, I ignored some very key warning signs.
In the year prior to my surgery, I had been experiencing moments when my legs felt numb — not a tingly-numb, but a dead and heavy numb feeling where I would beat my legs to try to make the feeling come back. Other times, I experienced shooting pains and cramping in my legs. Every time it happened I had an excuse. I blamed it on low potassium, lack of sleep (I start work at 1 a.m.) or stress.
I had been diagnosed with low iron and vitamin D deficiency. I was also experiencing issues with bowel control — I’ll spare you the details. And I was having shooting pains in my arms.
I actually went to an emergency room one time because I thought I was having a heart attack after anchoring all-night coverage during the presidential debates. I was told there was nothing wrong with my heart so I went right back to work for our next night of coverage. I blamed the pains in my arms on too much caffeine and lack of sleep.
Take it from me: ignoring a health problem won’t make it go away. Don’t make excuses when you are dealing with real physical symptoms, or wait for a medical emergency before you see a doctor. I never wanted to take sick days from work because I was always worried it would impact my job, especially since a lot of what I was experiencing was happening while management, schedule and talent changes were happening at Fox News.
As it turns out, I am not alone in ignoring symptoms and not wanting to take time away from work.
For example, there’s Patricia Pintauro who emailed me:
“Thank you for sharing your story and wisdom about listening to our bodies.
I had the same thing happen to me four years ago. I ignored all of the signs, loss of balance, pains in arms and legs, bad headaches, always tired… thought all of it was menopause related and ignored it for about two years….
It’s been four years and I will say the first year was tough. I did go back to work four weeks later. I should have taken more time, but I was getting depressed. I went from working out all of the time, to doing nothing and became more depressed. I finally took back my powers last year and started to work with a medical wellness trainer and he has transformed my body and my mind.”
And a Tweet from @wmdpower:
Heather just read your article — thank you for sharing your experience and glad to see you back. After reading, I sent it to my wife as I felt it was written about her. Hopefully, when she gets up and reads your story, you will be more convincing than I have been to see a doctor.
Another response via email from Mary Saucier:
“I am about to undergo a similar if not the same surgery.
This article from her has helped me a great deal….
I really appreciate her story as it has helped reduce my fear factor for the surgery.
I am on Arkansas and will hopefully soon be on the road to recovery…. I used her article to show my children and family and friends exactly what is happening to me.”
A Tweet from @MichelleyWenz
Oh no! Blessings on your recovery and thank you, I have many of the same symptoms from accidents as a teenager as well. I’m going to get it checked out.
Fast forward to this past April. I covered a story at Fort Bragg, where I rappelled down a 45-foot wall. At the time, I couldn’t physically turn my neck to look down no matter how hard I tried to force it. I had experienced a “stiff neck” for years. I had blamed it — again — on stress, lack of sleep or other little things. I considered this a nuisance, not a serious health issue.
As for this particular incident at Fort Bragg — I just blamed it on being terrified 45 feet up in the air! But after this incident, what had previously been sporadic bouts of numb legs turned into flat-out falling down, with my right leg dragging. My arms began to have the same weak feeling as my legs, where I could barely raise them long enough to wash my hair.
My hands had begun to ache. I had begun to drop things, like my all-important coffee in the morning! Still, in my mind, I had excuses for everything — and I never thought that all my problems were related. I now know that all my problems were the result of my spinal cord being compressed in my neck.
After my MRI, I consulted with four different neurosurgeons in person and three others looked at my MRI results remotely. They all said the same thing, I needed surgery — and I needed it soon. Cervical spinal stenosis with myelopathy isn’t curable, but surgery can stop symptoms from progressing. And my symptoms were progressing all too rapidly. I was very lucky to have one of the very best neurosurgeons, Dr. Paul McCormick with the Spine Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
The surgery itself involved three areas of my spine in my neck. The affected discs and bone spurs were removed from an incision in the front of my neck. Dr. McCormick then fused together the open spaces between the vertebrae by implanting a bone graft from a bone bank and then secured everything together with a titanium metal plate and screws.
I was fitted with a neck brace and wore it nonstop until just a couple weeks ago — shower and sleep included!
I was warned I might have problems with my voice after surgery, but aside from a cough for a couple weeks, my voice is back to normal. I was also back up and walking almost immediately, albeit very slowly!
In terms of exercise, I am still only allowed to walk. I have managed to talk my neurosurgeon into allowing me to use my Peloton bike, but I can only pedal slowly and have to wear my neck brace. For someone who loves to rollerblade, run, bike, golf and engage in other athletic activity, it has been a bit frustrating to take things so slowly — but I know patience is key. It will take about a year to fully fuse everything together. I know I am very lucky.
From the stories many of you have shared with me, I am happy that my story has helped make a difference in any small way. As a result, I have also learned about many great organizations helping people with spinal cord injuries like Myelopathy.org and The Spinal Research Foundation. I have also heard from many still looking for help. To those of you not getting the answers or treatment you need, I encourage you to reach out to these groups.
By the way, while I was recovering, my dad was finishing up radiation treatments for prostate cancer. He was diagnosed a year ago, about the same time all of this started with me. He finds out in December if his treatments worked. It has been quite a year. Please pray for him.
Now that I have been back to work for a month, have I listened to my own advice? Hmmm. The jury is still out on that. As soon as I returned Hurricane Florence hit my home states of North and South Carolina and of course I wanted to go cover it. That was a big “no” from my neurosurgeon! I was only half serious. It will take six to nine months to know if the surgery will stop the symptoms I was already having in my arms and legs. It will take up to a year for the plate, implants and screws to fuse together with my own bones.
As a result of my surgery, my immune system is still pretty shot, I was hit with several days of a fever above 100 degrees so I ended up taking a sick day as a result. The crazy thing is, as I finish up this piece I was just officially diagnosed with the flu yesterday. I am now on the tail-end of it, but I should have gone to the doctor much earlier. Where am I right now? At work. What can I say, I am a work in progress!
Finally, thank you to all of the Fox News viewers who have reached out to me the past few weeks with kind words and who have told me they prayed for my recovery. You are so kind and thoughtful. I look forward to many, many more early mornings with my friends on the show and with our wonderful viewers. See you at 4 a.m. ET on Fox & Friends First!
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