Sharon Epperson is vigilant about her annual mammograms. In fact, when she went in for her most recent exam, the impressed technician noted that it was almost a year to the day since Epperson’s last scan for breast cancer.
Little did the tech know that during that year, Epperson had survived a brain injury that kills, often instantly. And as with heart disease, strokes, and breast cancer, women of color are at greater risk for a ruptured brain aneurysm than almost anyone.
When senior personal finance correspondent Epperson returned to CNBC in late September, she was sporting newly short hair and the same bright, confident smile colleagues and viewers knew so well.
In a business where visuals matter, Epperson looked great. In staff meetings, it was clear that she was as eager to get the job done as ever. What no one could see—or even imagine—was the large scar on her scalp and the painstakingly difficult road to recovery she has endured.
An Ivy League-educated black woman who ascended the national news ranks as a finance expert, Epperson is used to being a rarity. But nothing had prepared her for her rarest distinction yet, as one of the few who has sustained a ruptured blood vessel in her brain and lived to tell the story.
According to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation, injuries such as hers kill 40% of the time, often instantly. About 66% of those who survive sustain permanent brain damage. African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be stricken, and women are more likely than men, which puts women of color at the highest risk for this potentially deadly affliction.
It was Sept. 21, 2016, when life as Epperson knew it stopped during a routine workout at a gym near her suburban New York home. Seized by a headache so severe she could barely make it to her car, she called her husband, writer Christopher Farley, at work, and asked him to come get her.
He sped to her doctor, who immediately sent them to the emergency room, where a CT scan led to the terrifying diagnosis. Told she was being rushed to another nearby hospital for surgery, Epperson requested a more familiar hospital slightly farther away. She was told there wasn’t time.
Thus ended the illusion of confident control she was accustomed to as the clock started ticking on a 13-month journey to recovery and her return to work.
Epperson had not fully reflected on that journey until she decided to use her own experience to produce a segment on how to avoid financial disaster when the unexpected strikes. Guiding her audience through her story, Epperson came face-to-face with her own vulnerability—as well as her newfound strength.
You work in the public eye but you’re a private person. What was the hardest part of producing such a personal segment?
I hadn’t seen my scar, ever, until Chris sent me pictures when I was putting the piece together. I went back and forth about including that picture. I didn’t want people to see me so vulnerable. But once I put it out there, it was very freeing. Seeing the video of me in rehab, learning to walk again, even learning to balance again, was sobering, but it was inspiring too.
What strikes you most as you look back on your recovery?
When I look at the pictures Chris took, even with my head shaved in post-op, I was smiling! I know I was in the ICU and in a lot of pain, but I was rejoicing. It shocked me to see it.
How intimidating has the transition back to work been?
While I knew that I could work at the level I was working at before I left, I wasn’t’ sure I could sustain it with the intensity I did before. I’m excited to be back, but I’m very aware that I’m still recovering. What has been remarkable is how understanding everyone has been at every level. No one is trying to push me, it’s me pushing myself.
Yesterday, I recorded the first episodes of my series, Retire Well, and it was like I’d never left. I’m passionate about the material, I was prepared, and knew what I wanted to say. People are anxious about retirement. It’s scary wondering if they can effectively manage their money so that they’ll have enough long term. I want them to know they can do this, they got this! It’s not just the information that’s important, I want to make them feel really confident.
When I was done, my whole team gave me back exactly what I was trying to put out. They said, “You got this. You’re good!” It was very reassuring. That was a good day.
How did this experience change you?
My goal has always been to make sure that people are financially independent and mindful. I’ve always been pretty sure of my calling, and now I’m clearer than ever. But I see people differently, and they see me differently. Something happened to me, but I recognize that everybody else went through all that they went through in a year too.
Part of my journey has been understanding that it’s not about me, it’s about us together. I’m here to share what I know with whoever will listen. These are such challenging times and I think we’re all grappling with the same struggle every day, which is how to not be upset but to be of use.
What has your toughest adjustment been, since returning to work?
“Balance” is bull, we already know that. I’m back to having two phones that, even though I’m trying to ease back in, I check all the time. It’s a matter of prioritizing, and I’m used to doing it all. But, I do pray more and I do a lot of walking. I pay attention to what my body tells me. I get still when I need to, and try to go to bed earlier. I worry less and enjoy life more! After 15 years of only sleeping where I live, I live where I live.