If Heather Childers was able, one of the first things she’d like to do now that she’s all healed up and more mobile again is pull on a pair of inline skates and zip through Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I love that. I’ve been doing it since I was 18,” says Childers, the Charlotte native known to early-bird Fox News Channel viewers as host of “Fox & Friends First” at 4 a.m. When she worked at News 14 Carolina (from 2002-10), “I lived in uptown Charlotte for a period of time, and I would rollerblade all the way down to Freedom Park and around, then back up to Fifth & Poplar where I lived. Then I moved to the SouthPark area, and I was up and down Fairview Road all the time.
“I can do tricks, and jump, and spin, and all that kind of stuff ... but I have been told they would prefer I just not do that at all. Ever. I mean, I definitely can’t do that for at least the next year.”
Of course, Childers feels lucky just to be able to walk right now.
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Eight weeks ago, she had surgery on her neck to correct something called cervical spinal stenosis with myelopathy, a condition that causes compression of the spinal cord in the neck.
It’s a condition that had been very slowly and very quietly worsening since she sustained serious injuries to her head and neck in a car accident as a teenager, but that she wasn’t even aware of until infrequent and seemingly inconsequential symptoms — trouble walking, spasticity, muscle weakness and numbness — became progressively more frequent and consequential over the past year.
In April, when she couldn’t physically turn her neck to look at the ground while rappelling down a 45-foot wall on assignment at Fort Bragg, she blamed it on fear of heights. When she sporadically began falling flat on her face — including once while she was wearing tennis shoes at the Charlotte Douglas airport — she blamed it on clumsiness.
But after she experienced shooting pains in her head while on the air earlier this summer, she finally got herself to her doctors, who solved the mystery and recommended surgery ASAP. Without it, they told her, the myelopathy could very well eventually render her paralyzed.
“The neurosurgeon who first looked at me — the one that ultimately was my surgeon — he showed me that my right foot was dragging as a result of my spinal cord being mashed, basically, and that was what was causing me to trip and fall,” Childers says. At the same time, her father was in the middle of a battle with prostate cancer, “so I had debated putting it off until after he finished his radiation treatments ... but then the week prior to my surgery, my left foot started dragging, too. So they were right when they said I needed surgery as soon as possible.”
Childers hosted her last “Fox & Friends First” show before the procedure on July 12, and had it done the next day.
“The surgery itself involved three areas of my spine in my neck,” she wrote in a column about her ordeal posted earlier this week on the Fox News website. “The affected discs and bone spurs were removed from an incision in the front of my neck. (The surgeon) 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.”
A little over a week later, she flew to Charlotte to do the bulk of her recovery surrounded by her parents, Tobe and Barbara Childers; her boyfriend, Tom Zban, who works as a radiologist in Charlotte; and her sister Scarlett, an elementary schoolteacher in the Atlanta area who was able to make some longer visits home due to summer break.
One of the most agonizing parts of her recovery? The neck brace.
“I wore it for pretty much the entire time I was home,” Heather Childers says. “I was wearing it sleeping, wearing it washing my hair, you know, nonstop to the point where I ready to burn it. It was necessary. But I was so tired of it.”
On the other hand, she was grateful for the time spent with her dad. They watched “Family Feud” and “Judge Judy” together, ate at his favorite restaurants (BrickTop’s, BRIO Tuscan Grille, Bonefish Grill, Harper’s Restaurant), and caught the Panthers’ preseason-opening win against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium.
She often missed his radiation treatments because Tobe and Barbara had to be out the door at 7:30 in the morning, and they wanted their daughter to take advantage of the (very rare) opportunity to sleep in on weekdays.
But Heather was there at Levine Cancer Center for the one that mattered most: His last radiation treatment, an occasion marked by him ringing a bell in the hospital amid cheers, then big stacks of syrup-soaked pancakes at IHOP. Heather Childers says her dad will find out in December if the treatments were successful.
As the success of her own treatment, well, the good news is that she returned to her hosting duties on Tuesday morning (one of her guests was Fox News medical correspondent Marc Siegel, who talked about her condition and her treatment); and the better news is that she doesn’t have to worry about paralysis anymore.
Beyond that, though, where her recovery goes from here is a little bit of a mystery.
“I am hopeful that some of the other symptoms — the really bad ones, which are falling down and the numbness in my legs and the tingling in my arms — I’m hopeful that that will all go away,” Childers says. “But it could take like six to eight months for that to happen, and that’s not guaranteed. They could only guarantee that it won’t get any worse.”
She says doctors have also told her that the implants will take about a year to all completely fuse together.
In the meantime, while she can’t get back on her inline skates anytime soon, she has become “a walking machine,” she says. She’s slow, but she’s getting it done (in fact, after that first day back on Tuesday, she walked four miles in Riverside Park). And while she still has to wear her neck brace sometimes — for instance, while traveling in cars on Manhattan’s bumpy streets — she no longer has to wear it 24-7.
Most of all, she’s hopeful that her experience might inspire others to take better care of their health.
“I almost waited too late — I really did,” Childers says. “If I had even waited that one more month, who knows what would have happened? I didn’t want the same to happen to somebody else. Regardless of whatever the medical condition is, don’t feel like you can’t get it checked out. If you have to take some days, and some sick days, then do it.”
“I mean, if you’re falling flat down on your face in the airport ... you should probably check it out.”