Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Talking Head

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Former KTAR morning-talk personality Darrell Ankarlo recalls the devastating brain injury that changed his life.

“It was a perfect night,” Darrell Ankarlo recalls. Indeed, April 8, 2009 was such a perfect spring evening in Arizona that the KTAR morning host had the top down on his Volkswagen. His wife, Laurie, was in the car behind his, following him home from a Diamondbacks game. He was in high spirits, heartily singing along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as he turned left from Seventh Street onto Thunderbird Road.


Then the night stopped being perfect.

An elderly man in a pickup pulled out of the Safeway parking lot and collided with the front end of Ankarlo’s car. The airbags deployed, hitting Ankarlo in the head, knocking him out cold.

Nearly four years later, describing the accident while sitting in a Starbucks at the very intersection where it happened, Ankarlo shows signs of the toll it’s taken on him. He speaks carefully, and when he pauses to locate a memory or choose a word, you can see a faint, bemused irritation flicker over his features.

“There are craters in my memory bigger than... that crater up there,” he says. He means Meteor Crater; his kids are on a day trip there today. “But my memory is laser-like for other things.”

Speech is harder, too. “I have trouble with cadence. I’d always been a craftsman with my words – very fast.”

Not so much these days. Laurie sits next to him, helping fill in the blanks. “I’ve learned to finish his sentences for him,” she says. “The doctors say I shouldn’t do it so much.”

 Her husband doesn’t seem to mind. “I’ve had a major migraine today,” he sighs. “I’ll be slow on the uptake. I never knew what a migraine was. Before the accident, I’d had, like, three headaches in my life.”

The pre-migraine part of Ankarlo’s life began in Maryville, Illinois, as the fourth of six children of an Assemblies of God pastor. Finishing high school a year early, he headed to Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, where he majored, rather alliteratively, in Business, Biblical Studies and Broadcasting. More importantly, he met Laurie, a California girl from a different background.

“I was raised by a single mother, the opposite of Mr. Ozzie and Harriet here,” she says. Their 35-year marriage has produced four kids.

After Evangel, Ankarlo began climbing the radio ladder, first as a rock jock, then as a talker in markets like Chicago and Philadelphia. He took a Nashville station “from worst to first” in the ’90s. In the mid-2000s, Valley talk bastion KTAR wooed Ankarlo, then enjoying success at KLIF in Dallas. “They flew us out and put us up at the Phoenician, so we knew they were serious,” he notes. He started at KTAR in 2007.

“I’ve never considered myself a political talker,” Ankarlo insists. “The goal of my show was to talk about life, and some of that was political.”

A lot of it was political, and conservatively so – Ankarlo’s signature position was discontent over illegal immigration. He made a border crossing on foot himself, which he recounted in a 2008 book, Another Man’s Sombrero: A Conservative Broadcaster’s Undercover Journey Across the Mexican Border.

He was a hit; his long-term prospects at KTAR looked promising. He became a local celebrity, and began writing a column for this magazine. Then came that left turn onto Thunderbird.

Ankarlo was unconscious for only a few minutes after his accident. Incredibly, he was sent home from the hospital that night. More incredibly, he was back on the air within days. At first he felt fine, but then something odd happened: He started hiccupping. “I told my on-air team, we’ve got to make fun of this,” he says. “We had listeners calling in with remedies.” But the hiccups were, in this case, no joke.

“Hiccupping occurs because of a spasm of the diaphragm,” says Christina Kwasnica, the physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor who supervised Ankarlo’s rehab at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “You’ll see it sometimes when there’s a big brain injury. It’s a sign of pressure in the brain. We aren’t sure why it happens sometimes to people with mild brain injuries. It’s kind of a weird thing.”

The hiccupping was only the beginning, in any case. “By the time I got him to the doctor,” Laurie says, “he couldn’t remember his birthday and was having trouble walking.”

Ankarlo had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI). “They call it, which is amazing, mild traumatic brain injury,” Laurie notes. “The doctor said, ‘If you were a football player, Darrell, this would be the end of your career.’”

It was, indeed, a football player’s injury – mild TBI is roughly synonymous with concussion. “Technically, there isn’t any difference,” Kwasnica says. “It usually denotes a fairly quick recovery and not much lasting damage.”

Not always, though: “Our brain is kind of the consistency of a good jello mold,” Kwasnica explains. “It’s wobbly in there, but it’s firm. So when your head stops moving forward, your brain is still moving inside there. And there’s a dense part in the middle, and it’s less dense on the outer part, and where the two come together is where the damage can happen.”

Kwasnica quickly refutes the notion that Ankarlo’s injury is an indictment of airbags, however. “We definitely know that since airbags have been mandated, death from severe TBI has gone way down.”

Ankarlo took a leave from KTAR, but, determined to get back on the air quickly, threw himself into speech and physical rehab, at a pace that both his therapists and his family thought too intense. “He’s a type-A personality – the worst kind for brain injuries,” Laurie Ankarlo says.

Though he credits KTAR with not pressuring him, he nonetheless insisted on returning to the air that September. “I thought I was back in form,” he says.

He wasn’t back in form – on the air or off.

“One day he was walking down the hall, unassisted, and he’s going to take the stairs,” remembers Gayle Bass, then his coworker at KTAR. Seeing his shuffling, unsteady gait, she thought, “‘This man is having serious problems.’ I had to make him take the elevator.”

When even listeners began expressing concern about his slowed-down manner, it was clear that Ankarlo would have to leave the air indefinitely. “People ask me if I’d like to get back to it, but I don’t know if that’s ever going happen,” he says, with a shrug.

“About 90 percent of people [with mild TBI] are going to get completely better,” Kwasnica says. “I wish we knew who the other 10 percent were going to be, but we don’t.”

The specific skill set required for Ankarlo’s career is one of the factors that made his return so difficult. “Darrell has to spontaneously speak. It’s a very hard job to go back to for someone whose attention and processing have been compromised.”

He’s now focused full-time on recovery, with weekly therapy sessions variously involving a rehabilitative neurologist, neuropsychologist and psychologist.

“The idea is to create new pathways in the brain, to start thinking in a different way,” he says of the sessions, which are designed to re-route his cognitive processes around the forests of neurons that were shredded in the accident.

Are they working? “I feel they are,” he says hopefully. “You know, you’ll run into people you haven’t seen in six months, and they’ll pick up on subtleties, like the fact your sentences flow better and don’t trail off. So it’s nice to hear them say, ‘Man, you’ve made huge progress.’ The hope is I ain’t done yet.”

The accident has changed Ankarlo in other ways. He says he feels “more compassionate” to everyday people, especially when he visits the hospital and sees other victims of neurological disorders. “I see people belted down, going into convulsions, and suddenly I feel very fortunate about my circumstances,” he says. Still, he stops short of claiming a
Regarding Henry-style post-brain-trauma spiritual rebirth.

When it comes to political views and style, for example, he’s very much the same man: His Facebook page “likes” include George W. Bush, Joe Arpaio and The Tea Party Union, and his posts feature the same, strongly-worded opinions that kept his listeners coming back for more.

“I’m a conservative,” he says firmly. “I have conservative values.”

But like many TBI sufferers, Ankarlo has experienced increased irritability and mood swings. “I will react differently to stimuli,” he says. “I can get angry, but I’ll internalize it.” He believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) “from the get-go.”

His wife credits their son Adam, an Iraq War combat veteran who has also struggled with TBI and PTSD diagnoses, with being a particular help to his father.

Ankarlo agrees. “My oldest boy was in Fallujah and came back from the war with PTSD,” he says. “I didn’t really understand it at first, but now that I’ve been hit by it, I get it. It’s opened a dialogue between us. I would call it the good part of a very bad thing.”

His gratitude doesn’t stop there. “I credit the doctors with saving my life, the listeners who’ve been so supportive. But above all I credit my wife. To have my best friend through this… it saved my life.”

Now the one-time media firebrand is looking “for the new iteration of Darrell Ankarlo.” He misses the “platform” of talk radio, but is also looking for new ways to define himself. He’s considering writing a book about his ordeal and that of other TBI sufferers. He’s also prepared for the possibility that his days in the limelight are drawing to a close. “My ultimate legacy will be to be a good dad and good husband,” he says. “If that’s what I leave, that’s what I leave.”

 

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