In hindsight, Alicia Vitarelli wishes she had slowed down and, as the saying goes, listened to her body.
But the newscaster at 6ABC does not do slowly. Hates to lounge, never gets sick, does three things at once, sees problems and fixes them fast, sunny outlook intact.
So when her husband and daughter were asleep in their room on a pre-Christmas cruise, naturally Vitarelli popped out of bed at 7 a.m. to do laundry and get coffee. She slipped quietly through the darkened room, looking down to follow the light from her smartphone, and BAM! Vitarelli hit her head on the bathroom door.
What followed was a frustrating trip through the health-care system, eventually leading to a two-month medical leave.
Except at first, she did not think anything was truly wrong.
Back on the air since May 14, the native New Yorker described her medical saga in a Facebook post and shared additional details in an interview.
She saw stars briefly that morning on the cruise ship, but felt as if she could power through. She set off in search of ice to keep down any swelling.
“I was thinking more about the aesthetics,” she said.
Once back in Philadelphia, Vitarelli returned to work, rejecting her mother’s suggestion that she see a doctor.
“What’s a doctor going to do?” she asked.
But a few weeks later, three-quarters of the way through her 4 p.m. newscast on Jan. 16, Vitarelli started to feel dizzy. She saw black spots before her eyes and had trouble reading the teleprompter. When the director cut to a video feed, she stepped off the set and grabbed the arm of her stage manager. She went to the emergency room at Pennsylvania Hospital.
She told medical staff about the blow to her head on the cruise ship, and physicians determined she was suffering the lingering effects of a concussion. They also saw that her hemoglobin levels were unusually low, and prescribed iron infusions. There was a third clue: Her head felt as if it was underwater, so she asked whether someone could look in her ears. The physician saw lots of fluid, but said the ear was not infected. She went home with a prescription for antibiotics just in case.
After a month, her hemoglobin levels rose, and she felt more energetic. But her other symptoms — the dizziness and stuffy-head feeling — became worse. And she started to have crushing headaches.
During a trip to Target for paper towels, she felt off-balance and had to sit down. On other errands, she sometimes worried that it was unsafe to drive and called an Uber. The symptoms did not seem to be stress-related, occurring even when she knew she would otherwise feel completely happy and at ease — at her daughter’s birthday party, or in the 6ABC studio.
“All of this was just weird,” she said.
She saw more doctors, who counseled her that recovery from a concussion can take months. She tried therapy to improve her vision and balance, which seemed to help a little. But then her ears got worse. In addition to feeling full, they started to ring.
“I was trying to push through at work, and I just couldn’t do it,” she said.
She went on medical leave March 11, and went to New York to see ear doctor Stefan Kieserman, whom she had seen years before for another issue. Diagnosis: Her ears and sinuses remained full of fluid, somehow unable to drain properly through vessels called the eustachian tubes. And the fluid had led to an infection.
Kieserman prescribed antibiotics along with steroids to shrink the swelling and open the tubes, but that helped only a bit. On a subsequent visit, he proposed inserting drainage tubes in her eardrums — the procedure often performed on small children with chronic ear infections. He did the left one on April 17, then she came back a few weeks later for the right. Soon she felt a dramatic improvement.
Vitarelli and Kieserman both stressed that the physicians who saw her previously were asking all the right questions. The tricky part seemed to be that she had suffered a concussion followed by an ear infection — two conditions that can have some of the same symptoms, such as the dizziness and ear-ringing (tinnitus) that Vitarelli experienced.
“I don’t have any sense that there was a missed diagnosis," Vitarelli said. “I just think it was evolving, two major conditions that were evolving.”
“She wasn’t getting relief, so we tried some things that hadn’t been done,” Kieserman said in an interview. “It doesn’t invalidate what had been done to her first.”
But was it simply bad luck that the ear infection came on top of the concussion? At the same time she was trekking back and forth to Kieserman’s New York office, Vitarelli also consulted Philadelphia chiropractor Casey D’Arcy, who thought the two conditions could be related.
X-rays revealed that Vitarelli’s neck vertebrae were out of alignment from the head injury, which could have interfered with proper eustachian tube drainage and also contributed to headaches by putting pressure on nerves in the spinal cord, D’Arcy said. She performed a series of chiropractic adjustments and also prescribed stretching exercises.
Asked whether the two issues were related, Kieserman was doubtful, though he said the head impact could have led to muscle tension, potentially leading to a feeling of ear fullness.
The ear tubes and the neck treatments both helped, Vitarelli said. She also tried Pilates, and otherwise just gave herself time to slow down and heal.
By May 14, she felt well enough to go back on the air. She was heartened by the warm welcome from her colleagues, and she got a boost from another source: enthusiastic messages of support from viewers.
“It is fueling me,” she said. “It is putting something back in the tank.”
She realizes that the severity of her ordeal may seem puzzling. A few have asked whether she was in a car accident. No, she explained — she “just” hit her head on a door.
But what seems like a bonk on the head can have grave consequences, she tells people. A head injury is nothing to take lightly — especially when an ear infection comes on top of it.