Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Kirk Baird


‘Blizzard’ Bill Spencer weathers life-threatening health crisis


    A major health crisis kept "Blizzard" Bill Spencer off the air for 13 weeks.

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A major health crisis kept "Blizzard" Bill Spencer off the air for 13 weeks.

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For several months “Blizzard” Bill Spencer, the popular and excitable WTVG-TV, Channel 13, morning meteorologist, has been off the air and in a literal battle for his life.

Which makes his Tuesday return to work and normal forecasting duties all the more meaningful.

It’s a day the 59-year-old said he didn’t think would happen.

“I thought I was going to die,” Spencer said. “I really did. I’m on the phone with life insurance and writing down everything that I should do and my family should do.” 

The health crisis began with an early summer headache he pegged to inflamed sinuses. It seemed to be the same problem Spencer has every spring when allergy season makes its annual return to northwest Ohio.

“That’s what I kept thinking,” he said. “Until it really hit me.”

He lost vision in his left eye.

RELATED CONTENT: Read more of Kirk Baird's 'Culture Shock' columns

During a noon newscast while off camera he bent over to pick up a pen and was unable to stand up for two minutes.

And chronic fatigue left him so exhausted that he repeatedly fell asleep in his car at stoplights.

“One guy even knocked on my window and woke me up,” he said.

“I had no energy. I felt like I’d been up for a week doing severe weather [updates]. And this was just a normal day.”

Spencer’s malady was far more grave than pollen allergies. And it only got worse, to the point he prepared his wife, Cathy, and his two sons for the worst.

An MRI revealed a cloudy mass of infection in his brain, and more than a month’s worth of “kick-butt antibiotics” failed to improve his condition.

“The doctor said it was the worst bacteria he’s seen in his career and he’s been doing this for 30 years,” Spencer said.

Then there was the concern the infection would spread into Spencer’s bones, “which would have been devastating,” he said.

By now the TV and radio meteorologist was off the air and on medical leave, after having only missed two weeks of work in a 30-year career.

He updated his boss and colleagues on his condition when there was news.

"We would get updates every week or two saying that he might be back in a couple of weeks," WTVG Chief Meteorologist Jay Berschback said. "And then after a couple of weeks we'd get an update saying it might be another couple of weeks. In the back of my mind, the way it kept lengthening, I thought there was an outside chance that he may just step away from the business if it was the best thing for his family and himself. That comes first."

The station was subbing its meteorology staff for Spencer's 4:30 to 7 a.m. and noon newscast shifts, but Spencer rarely tuned in to watch. "I would have missed it too much," he said.

Meanwhile, his doctors were baffled by his illness.

They initially thought he might have had a stroke and then they considered the possibility he had a brain aneurysm.

The latest theory is that his initial illness might be linked to Lyme disease, the result of a tick bite during a camping trip. His dog was also bitten by a tick on the same trip and suffered many of the same symptoms as Spencer before dying. But the escalating bacterial infection in his body was from something else, and was made worse by Spencer's weakened immune system.

A trip to the dentist for a root canal, strangely enough, kick-started Spencer's recovery.

After removing the tooth, the dentist discovered the infection had spread into the jaw. Spencer was sent to an oral surgeon, who "finally relieved the pressure of all of this ... and the infection came out of the sinus cavity." The antibiotics kicked in and Spencer started feeling much better.

At this point, "The headache's gone, the sinuses are fine, I can see fine," he said. "I will continue to take blood tests and antibiotics, and at the first sign of a headache I will go back to the doctor and try and head it off.

"But hopefully it's over."

Brian Trauring, WTVG executive news director, credits Spencer as an important part of Channel 13's ratings success in the mornings. The meteorologist's absence was disconcerting to many viewers, who called the station wanting more information about why Spencer wasn't on TV.

"With his early warnings for the tornado in Lake Township, a lot of people gave him credit for saving their lives and that's not something you forget," Trauring said.

The plan is for Spencer to return to his normal work shift and see how he responds. Doctors encouraged him not to push himself too hard when he gets back, and he said he has no intention of disobeying their orders.

On Tuesday, viewers will see a healthier Spencer, who said he lost 25 pounds through this ordeal and is eating healthier.

Given his health scare and age, it's only natural to think he's at least considering retirement.

"No, not really," Spencer said. "If anything, it kind of re-energized me.

"Let's put it this way, I was retired for 13 weeks."

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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