Editor’s note: Colleen McEdwards is a former CNN anchor who currently teaches Journalism at Georgia State University.
Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — It was August, 2011, the night rebels seized control of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s compound and Tripoli fell.
I’d already done a couple of business shows earlier that day and was about to go home when the news broke. I ended up staying on the air through 4am. I didn’t know it then, but I was having my own attack as well.
First, the harsh studio lights. I could barely focus my eyes on the camera in front of me. Fortunately, we do not use teleprompters in breaking news situations. It’s almost all ad-libbed. There was no way I could have read any words on a screen.
Organizing sentences in my brain became increasingly difficult — and it wasn’t just the usual fatigue from a sustained marathon of breaking news at CNN International.
By the end of it, my face felt numb, and I thought this must be what it’s like when someone’s having a stroke.
Out of the studio, the racket of my earpiece out of my head, the lights dimmed, I immediately felt better, made it home and flopped into bed.
When I awoke the next afternoon, it was all “Alice in Wonderland.” The room, the hallway, the doorframes, everything was on a tilt.
I was so dizzy, I had to hold on with both hands to walk down the hall.
This was my first major flare-up of a compromised vestibular system, the complex network of the inner ear, the brain and the eyes we never think about, but is largely responsible for keeping humans upright.
One doctor thought it was Ménière’s disease since I had previously suffered hearing loss in my left ear.
I was terrified. Am I going deaf? No one could answer.
It took a couple of months, but I finally found the right doctor who specialized in vestibular disorders and who nailed it right away.
I also learned I was in good company. According to the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA), an estimated 35 percent of Americans aged 40 or older experience vertigo or persistent dizziness sometime in their lives. That’s about 70 million Americans.
NBA stars Pau Gasol and LeBron James, and the NHL’s Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger are just a few famous professional athletes and public figures who suffered vestibular problems related to concussion or injury. Some have been career-ending.
Many cases remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
Having a chronic vestibular problem is a bit like having a hurricane inside your head.
While the disorder is often associated with brain injuries, anyone can get hit.
In my case, it was a combination of the hearing loss and the work environment: bright lights, loud noise, intense stress and fatigue which are all typical in the life of a news anchor on a 24-hour, international network.
Florida-based chiropractic neurologist Dr. Ted Carrick, who sees patients from all over the world, including dozens of celebrity athletes, says: “People lose their autonomy with vestibular issues.
“There is nothing better… than when I see a person who can’t walk without their hands on a wall get their life back.”
Carrick points to the prevalence of falls which he says are the greatest cause of accidental death after the age of 21.
“We have tens of millions of patients at risk of falling and don’t even know it.
“You can feel good because the brain compensates, but the compensation isn’t permanent and it isn’t full.
“People are aware of heart attacks and cancer, but they’re walking around in a bigger time bomb.”
Cynthia Ryan, Executive Director of VEDA, adds: “Many of our members tell us that they feel they have an invisible chronic illness.
“Their symptoms and condition are not always acknowledged, leaving them to deal with the devastating consequences on their own.”
That’s where public awareness comes in. VEDA promotes “Balance Awareness Week” to encourage undiagnosed patients to seek help from a vestibular specialist.
Reducing the time it takes to be diagnosed could save lives.
In my case, a quick diagnosis and the right therapy put my life back on track.
Although protecting my hearing, and managing fatigue and stress mean TV anchoring is out, I’m passionate about advocating and mentoring the next generation of journalists at Georgia State University.
It’s a slower, calmer life, but it’s also a balanced life, literally.
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