Carroll returns to radio after ‘slow slide down into hell’Written by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Suzanne Carroll announced she would take a five-month break from her radio show, “The Jazz Brunch,” she wasn’t sure she could return as promised on St. Patrick’s Day.
A series of complicated health crises, in concert with her 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis (MS), was pushing her toward a possible early retirement that would include walkers with wheels and preparing doorways for wheelchairs.
It started with extreme nerve pain from going off MS medicine. That was followed by a diagnosis of gall bladder disease. Then she had a breast cancer scare, which delayed her gall bladder removal. During that surgery, doctors found liver disease.
This was in addition to “the worst MS attack of my entire life,” the 57-year-old said. Carroll felt the attack coming on before announcing her break and it got more debilitating during her hiatus. She called it a “slow slide down into hell.”
“I knew my MS was already bad in the summer,” Carroll said. “When I would get up from a chair, I couldn’t walk. I had to stand there and start walking really slow. I couldn’t pick things up; I was so fatigued. I was getting tired 10 minutes after waking up from a full night’s sleep.”
But with MS it is hard to tell how long an attack will continue and Carroll was unsure if she would recover as she had in the past. She thought: “If I don’t take a break right now, I am going to skid right into the dirt.”
Her doctors actually wanted her to retire, something Carroll rejected. She started her jazz show 17 years ago Oct. 7, a date so symbolic she made that her final Sunday morning show before going on extended leave.
Her return to radio March 17 is also meaningful. Twenty years ago on that date Carroll received her MS diagnosis.
“For the longest time I would say to people that I don’t know why I ever went to the doctor’s office on St. Patrick’s Day, what a stupid thing to do. Looking back at it now, I think it is a great day to get diagnosed. I feel very lucky still being function-able.”
Taking its toll
Carroll began exhibiting symptoms when she was 19. She lost part of the sight in her right eye and experienced numbing from the waist down. Diagnosis was difficult.
“I stopped going to the doctor for all of those strange, awful things, and I thought if I was just patient with myself and rested, it would subside,” Carroll said. “Now I know that it was relapsing-remitting MS.”
In January 1993, she woke up with double vision. It was her second day of judging a local advertising contest and she didn’t want to miss it. All day she kept asking fellow judges, “Can you see anything in my eye?”
When she finished, she called her husband, Dennis Witherell, and said he needed to meet her at the ER.
“We had no idea what that was about, but we later found out that double vision is a common symptom of MS,” Witherell said.
The doctors did a series of tests, including a spinal tap. At her follow-up appointment on St. Patrick’s Day, she found out she had MS, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.
“A lot of doctors had told me that my mind was playing tricks on my body. In essence, they were telling me I was a little squirrely,” she said. “Knowing what was happening really was a powerful thing. It gave me a chance to start fighting it.”
When she was first diagnosed there were no medications on the market to slow the progress of the incurable disease. She was sent home with no hope. Eight months later, the first medication came out.
“I have been on medication for a period of 20 years, except when I have to take a holiday in between meds,” Carroll said. “I would safely say at this point in time that if I had not done aggressive medication throughout these years, including a two-year stint with chemotherapy, I would not be working.”
Carroll is permanently numb on the right side of her body from the waist down and is three-quarters blind in her right eye. After her most recent attack, her left hand is arthritic-like.
“Every time I have a relapse, I usually get 90 percent of everything back. Over 20 years, I am slowly losing little bits. The cumulative effect, make no mistake, is taking its toll,” she said.
Going off air
Carroll’s health began a slow descent in late 2011 when she stopped taking an MS drug that put her at risk for a brain infection.
The subsequent nerve pain she felt from her waist to her neck was so painful she often had to sit unclothed with her arms in the air.
Gall bladder disease would follow, along with surgery, which had to be delayed when a mammogram revealed possible breast cancer. Fortunately, a follow-up scan came back clear a few weeks ago.
During her gall bladder surgery, doctors discovered the liver disease, which did not require a transplant, but will take two years to heal.
Meanwhile, the stress and body changes aggravated her MS.
“When you know something is happening, you chill out. That is all you can do. I have a handicap sticker and I don’t usually put the sticker on my car, but as soon as all these things started, I was parking in the handicap spaces, conserving my energy, saving my steps.”
The call to go off the air was made primarily because of the liver disease and MS.
“My body was shutting down. I knew it was shutting down. I would have never taken a break if I didn’t know something was happening with me.”
Since the break would be so long, she could not prerecord enough shows; however, management held her spot on 101.5 The River.
“I needed to deal with what was happening. The number of doctor appointments and testing and time spent on my health pretty much paralleled the time I was spending on ‘The Jazz Brunch.’ There was no time for both,” Carroll said.
In December, doctors decided to retry steroid treatments for her MS, despite a horrible reaction a decade earlier. A few steroid treatments later she was admitted into the Cleveland Clinic with another severe reaction.
Soon after, on the day her leg started to feel a tad less “dead,” she discovered she had shingles.
“I am going to shoot myself right now. I am never going to get back on the radio. My plan isn’t going to work,” Carroll said of her mindset.
But extremely high doses of antivirals led to a surprising recovery, one that happened over a span of five days in January. Doctors still aren’t positive, but they think shingles may have been the longtime culprit. Her immune system, weakened by MS, could not handle it.
“All this crap just lifted off of me,” Carroll said. “It was stunning. It was unbelievable. I am not a big one for miracles, but this feels miraculous.”
These days, Carroll is getting around without her cane. Her legs feel more limber and the tingling has lifted in some places.
“Even after this most recent attack, I did get about 90 percent back again, and I am really grateful because there is going to be a day when this will not remit,” she said.
Her husband said this MS attack was the scariest.
“We were both thinking it likely would not remit and when it did, we were thrilled.”
Carroll’s return to the radio is much anticipated. “The Jazz Brunch” is her dream job, a position she dared not seek when she was a single mother raising three children.
Instead, she focused on her ad business until she was offered a show. The newly remarried Carroll wasn’t sure she should take it, though. She had just been diagnosed with a rotten disease and didn’t want such a high-profile position.
“But they were going to let me pick all my own music and do all my own thing. It was going to be all my own show. You don’t get an opportunity like this too many times.”
So she took it and made it her own, even selling the advertisements. The show has become a staple of Northwest Ohio radio.
“We’re thrilled to have Suzanne Carroll back on the air Sunday mornings with her show, ‘The Jazz Brunch,’” said Kellie Holeman-Szenderski, regional market manager for Clear Channel Media & Entertainment, in an email. “Our listeners and the community have truly missed her and we’re so glad that she is ready to return to 101.5 The River. Suzanne’s show is very important to the station’s Sunday programming and she’s a dear friend of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Toledo.”
D.J. Yark, general manager of Yark BMW, said that Carroll has been a wonderful partner. Yark runs seven commercials throughout her four-hour show.
“It was a very tough time for her, but we are glad she is getting back as soon as she has. We didn’t like to have her off,” Yark said.
Carroll said her show has always been intensely personal. Longtime listeners can tell what is going on in her life by what is being played. One of her favorite CDs and title tracks is “Lucky To Be Me” by Carol Welsman. This song especially resonates because of her recent recovery.
To get in the mood for her live show, she turns down the lights in the studio, gets her coffee and turns on her sexy voice. Longtime fan Gary Enck said he hasn’t listened to The River since she went off the air.
“My Sundays have been very lonely,” he said. “We are really anxious to have her back. She is a treasure.”
Carroll said she never knew for certain if she would return by March 17. Luck was involved.
“A lot of people would say I have planned on coming back on St. Patrick’s Day all along, but I didn’t. I grabbed at the date in the spring that meant something to me and that was my date of my MS diagnosis.”
Now St. Patrick’s Day is doubly meaningful. It is the day she returned to radio, too.