TV anchor Brenda Blackmon has new outlook as daughter recovers from illness
For the better part of 52 days, Brenda Blackmon’s life looked like this: shower, hospital,anchor the 10 o’clock news, sleep. Shower, hospital, anchor, sleep.
Lupus — the disease Blackmon had avoided knowing much about — was having its way with her daughter, attacking her vital organs as she lay in a coma.
After six weeks, daughter Kelly’s condition had deteriorated so much that doctors warned hope was running out. Blackmon ditched work, her routine shrinking to shower, hospital, sleep.
Sports anchor Russ Salzberg — “Uncle Russ” to Kelly — remembers visiting the hospital with the private intention of saying goodbye to the girl he’d known since she was a preschooler. It was shocking to see the vibrant 23-year-old comatose.
“It was as grim as grim can be,” he recalled. “When we left, my wife and I just sat in the car. I didn’t even turn on the ignition.”
Then, in defiance of the doctors’ predictions, Kelly opened her eyes — and began her long journey back to health.
Coming up on five years later, with Blackmon’s daughter safely in remission, she says she’s a different person.
Lupus may have changed Blackmon, co-anchor of My9 News, almost as much as it did the patient.
Where once she tried to ignore the illness, now she and her daughter work to spread the word about the quirky disease, particularly to the African-American community.
She used to think automatic prayer was kind of old-school, a routine from her aunts’ or grandmother’s generation. Now, fervent prayer dominates her Facebook and Twitter updates.
Where once the take-charge television personality preferred everything to be just so, now, small things don’t aggravate her. Her only child is alive, and that alone makes it a good day.
“I don’t have bad days,” she says with an equanimity so rock-solid you almost pity the fool who would dare question it.
Like many lupus sufferers, Blackmon’s daughter didn’t get a quick diagnosis for the weight loss and butterfly-shaped facial rash that struck the college junior in 2003. It took a friend phoning home behind her back to get her mother involved in the process.
“She said, ‘Kelly’s really sick. She needs to come home,” Blackmon recalls. When Kelly relented, returning to their Tenafly home, her mother was rendered nearly speechless upon seeing her much-thinner daughter.
“If I saw her at the airport, I would not have recognized her,” she said.
But once they got the right diagnosis and treatment, Kelly’s health improved. She finished college on time, got married. (Her name is now Kelly Dawn Kelly.)
It was her then-husband who discovered her collapsed in their bedroom in 2007. He took her to the hospital; admitted overnight for observation, she sank into a coma.
Lupus is a disease of the autoimmune system, one in which the system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. Women get it more often then men. It is also more common in African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women.
Its cause is unknown. While it can be fatal, 80 percent to 90 percent of those with lupus can expect to live a normal lifespan.
Throughout most of Kelly’s lengthy hospitalization, Blackmon’s night-shift hours allowed her to keep working. She’d head to the Secaucus television studio toward the end of the day, then deliver a newscast with poise, polish and her signature dazzling smile. Viewers were unaware of the private drama that was swamping her life when the cameras were off.
Co-worker Salzberg likens her ability to tune out personal distractions to the professional athletes he has covered over the years. “Sometimes, their comfort zone is between the white lines,” he said. “It’s the same for us. It’s what we do: We go on the air.”
Getting through, getting better Blackmon says there were only two times when she lost her composure at work. Once was in response to a technical snafu. When the broadcast went to commercial break, she went uncharacteristically diva, yelling and slapping a rolled-up sheet of paper on the desk. The floor manager calmly put his arm around her and told her everything would be okay.
The second time was during a taping of her show, “Real Talk.” As she read the introduction for two guests — both involved in counseling the dying — the tears spilled out unbidden and unwanted. Again, a co-worker softly said, “We’re getting makeup. It’ll be okay.”
Since Kelly was married at the time of her hospitalization, decisions about her care no longer legally rested with her mother, but with her new husband. Luckily, he and Blackmon, along with Kelly’s father, were all on the same page. This would be no repeat of the Terri Schiavo case, with relatives arguing about taking the patient off life support. All agreed to reject the doctors’ view that decision was fast approaching.
Blackmon now ruefully jokes that the reason she never left Kelly’s bedside was she knew as soon as she left the ICU, a doctor would pull her aside and gently say, “It’s time.”
Kelly’s long recuperation included time at the Kessler Rehabilitation Center, followed by outpatient therapy — including three years of speech therapy. As a result, there is little indication she was ever so ill.
Now, mother and daughter have an easy camaraderie. When Blackmon misremembers something, Kelly, 28, corrects her, then rolls her eyes, teasing, “… And I’m the one with the brain injury!”
Blackmon formed the Kelly Fund for Lupus, participating in the Alliance for Lupus Research’s annual walks. It’s a small charity — they raised about $10,000 last year — but the board of directors covers expenses, so all proceeds go to research.
One goal is to increase knowledge of the illness among African-American women, who develop lupus at three times the rate of whites.
The other is to get more blacks to participate in drug trials for new lupus medications. One of the residual effects of the notorious Tuskegee experiment — in which Alabama sharecroppers with syphilis were studied, but not treated, for four decades — is a knee-jerk wariness about medical research, Blackmon said.
Blackmon is also out with a book of inspirational messages she wrote to pass along hope to others. “A Mom’s Story” combines her most thoughtful Facebook status updates with photos she has taken of clouds. Many of her upcoming book signings are at African-American churches.
The book’s posting are a mixture of funny, spiritual, and brass-tacks practical. There is this one:
“Number one resource for the day: God. Use as often as necessary. Results guaranteed. Unlimited warranty. References available upon request. Attendance — perfect. Work record — unmatched. Quality of work — you decide. You will have no regrets.”
THE KELLY FUND
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