Former TV news anchor is now seizure-free and back in Madison
After an on-air seizure went viral and epilepsy threatened her career, Sarah Carlson moved. Now she's back and seizure-free, thanks to new medicine.
Across a decade starting in 2001, Sarah Carlson anchored newscasts at three Madison television stations.
Carlson thinks she may be the only journalist to have done that — anchored at three different stations. Whether that’s true, there’s another designation that is surely hers alone.
Carlson had epileptic seizures while on the air at two of them.
The second of the seizures, in January 2011, was the less severe of the two but nevertheless went viral when posted on YouTube. The seizures eventually led to Carlson’s doctor insisting she leave TV news with its stress and, especially, erratic hours — consistent sleep is important for people with epilepsy.
What followed was a move to the Chicago area, where Carlson is originally from and where her parents still live. She worked various jobs. She fell in love. Yet, the seizures continued. She lived her life — even ran marathons — but Carlson began to believe she was among those epilepsy patients who are never completely free of seizures.
Then, in summer 2020, her physician in Chicago, Dr. Michael Smith with the Rush University Medical Center, told her about a promising new medication called XCopri.
“I started the XCopri,” she says, “and it was weeks later that my seizures stopped. It gives me the chills to talk about it.”
Next month, Carlson will mark two years seizure-free.
Her longest time without seizures while she was in Chicago?
“I think it was three weeks,” she says. “No one thought this was going to happen, even though we tried to be hopeful. Deep down the people who love me and I never thought we’d be having this conversation.”
In spring 2021, Carlson and her fiancé, John Misasi, moved to Madison, where she shares custody with her ex-husband of her son and daughter, who are students at Middleton High School.
“I realized how much I missed Madison,” she says.
She first came to the city in 1994 for college, studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and interning at WKOW-TV (Channel 27) while in school.
After college, Carlson worked at a station in La Crosse and one in Minnesota before returning to WKOW-TV, anchoring first in the morning, then evening.
She left TV news in 2004 to start a media relations job with St. Mary’s Hospital, just in time to receive the onslaught of attention when a missing college student named Audrey Seiler ended up in the St. Mary’s emergency room. Producers offered to fly Carlson to New York. Larry King left her a voice mail.
But she missed doing news. In November 2006, Carlson returned to TV as an anchor on the NBC-15 morning show. It was three years later — November 2009 — that Carlson collapsed against her co-anchor, Christine Bellport, while Bellport was reading a story. It was a grand mal seizure. Carlson’s recollection of that episode begins later, waking up in an ambulance. Doctors finally discovered a kidney bean-sized tumor in her brain, and in September 2010 she had successful surgery to remove it.
“It was not cancerous,” Carlson says. “I was like, ‘Great, move on, life is fine.’”
In January 2011, she began anchoring the 10 p.m. news on WISC-TV News 3 Now. That month she suffered a second seizure while on the anchor desk — filling in at 6 p.m. — with Susan Siman. “I learned,” Carlson says, “that the scar tissue where the tumor sat causes trouble, too.”
Carlson stayed with News 3 Now and went back on the air for a time. Still, she was anxious. “The seizures were worsening and I was stressed out about it happening again.”
On her doctor’s advice, she stepped away. “It broke my heart,” she says. “But I thought I could do something like I did at St. Mary’s.”
She could find nothing. “Looking back, I think there’s a stigma there that played a role,” Carlson says. “No employer would admit it, but I’d just had that seizure that went viral. Who would want to hire me?”
She moved to the Chicago area in 2013. There were difficult stretches, jobs that didn’t work out, the loss of her driver’s license because of her seizures. They were trying different treatments. Her doctor advised her to go on disability.
“Medication for epilepsy is strong and the side effects can be brutal,” Carlson says.
She got through. “I thought I’d do what I had to do,” she says. “I was grateful for the doctors I had. For my parents and John. The support I had was phenomenal.”
The breakthrough in 2020, the move back to Madison, being with her kids — Carlson is in a good place.
“I’m looking for work again,” she says. “It’s a new thing. Everyone who loves me said, ‘Give yourself a year. If you still really want to, then start trying.’”
Any interest in TV news?
“I don’t think so,” she says. “Nor do I know if I’d be invited to.”
She’d like to find something else that utilizes her talent for writing, talking to people, listening to their stories.
“I used to think, ‘I’ll move back to Madison and do everything I can [to get back on TV],’” Carlson says.
Now she doesn’t want to get up at 3 a.m., or read the last story at 10:30 p.m.
“I’ve changed,” she says.
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