Live shots are supposed to be routine for broadcast journalists, especially for those who have won Emmy awards and have years of experience. But a shot outside the Grammy Awards on February 13 was anything but routine for CBS Los Angeles correspondent Serene Branson.
Instead of giving viewers a recap of the night’s award winners, when the broadcast was tossed to her, Branson spoke slurred and incomprehensible gibberish for 10 seconds before producers cut away. The episode was replayed millions of times across the Internet, leaving viewers wondering if she had suffered a stroke or a seizure on the air.
It turns out Branson had suffered a migraine aura at an unfortunate time.
“I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t have the words or the ability to say what I wanted to say,” Branson said just days after the incident. “I wanted to say that Lady Antebellum swept the Grammys tonight, and the words were just not there. It was surreal. It was like I was in a movie watching myself, and I couldn’t change what was going on.”
About 30% of women suffer from migraine headaches, and of those, up to 20% suffer migraine auras before a full-blown migraine, explained Dr. James Gebel, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lakewood Hospital. The symptoms of migraine auras — blurred vision, nausea, temporary numbness, and slurred speech, as in Branson’s case — are often misdiagnosed as strokes and seizures, he said.
Unintentional great service
And, for that reason, as scary and as embarrassing as it may have been for Branson to suffer on live TV, it was a positive thing for others who endure migraines.
“She has unintentionally done a great service,” Dr. Gebel said. The migraine aura “is really an underappreciated and underdiagnosed condition among us physicians. … From that point of view, it is absolutely wonderful that this happened.”
After the on-air incident, Branson was inundated with greeting cards, letters, and phone calls from people around the world who not only wanted to offer their support but also to say thanks for talking about migraines and making the issue public.
“I became aware of how many people have migraines,” Branson said in an interview with Yahoo! in November. “There needs to be more education about it.”
From gibberish to spokesperson
Shortly afterward, the National Headache Foundation asked her to become its spokesperson. The organization, based in Chicago, promotes migraine research and education.
“A big part of me wanted to just put it behind me,” Branson said. “But I couldn’t. That’s the first thing that people want to ask me about.”
She signed on with the National Headache Foundation, becoming the face of the organization’s “More than just a headache” campaign, which began in June and is intended to educate people on the personal and societal costs of migraines.
Branson has had a couple of migraines since February. She now has medication to control the migraines when she starts to feel the symptoms. And she doesn’t worry about having another episode on the air.
“I know how I felt that night, and I would never go on the air if I felt that way,” she said. “I’ve learned to listen to my body.”
Photo: KCBS TV/AP
Jeff Stacklin is the Cleveland Local editor for Yahoo!. Jeff has been an online and print journalist for the past 20 years.