When Soledad O'Brien's son Jackson, now 11, was in kindergarten, his teacher asked the class to write a story about something that had happened to them after school the day before. But for some reason, Jackson instead wrote a vivid tale about aliens coming down from space. "Everyone in the class was laughing at him," O'Brien recalls.
Things like that happened to Jackson a lot. He'd be playing ball with his friends and when someone said, "Throw the ball to Jackson," he'd be looking in another direction and get hit by the ball. He wouldn't notice when conversations changed, or when the group decided to play a new game. His twin brother, Charles, didn't seem to have the same issues, and O'Brien and her husband, investment banker Bradley Raymond, struggled to figure out what to do. "He kept getting really upset at school and having these meltdowns, and we didn't know what was going on," O'Brien says.
Then a schoolwide hearing test when Jackson was in first grade solved the mystery. "Most of the other kids in his class passed the hearing test, but he failed," O'Brien says. "We took him to an audiologist for further testing, and it turned out that he had lost about 80% of his hearing." Instead of being devastated, O'Brien says her initial reaction was "absolute pure relief. It finally made sense. We were so happy to now be able to help him in a thoughtful way. It was such a struggle for him, and now we could start getting educated and find out what to do for him."
Kids and Hearing Loss
As a newborn, Jackson had passed the hospital's standard hearing screening test. But many children who pass that screening have hearing problems later on. "One or two of every 1,000 children shows some level of hearing impairment in the newborn hearing screening. But by the time children reach school age, the number is about five to 10 per thousand," says Ryan McCreery, PhD, a pediatric audiologist and director of the Center for Audiology at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, NE.
"Usually, the first signs of hearing loss in that age range are exactly the types of things that Soledad is describing," McCreery says. "When parents and teachers talk to the child one-on-one, they seem to hear fine. But in the classroom or on the playground, there's a lot of noise and reverberation, and the child can't hear well, so they fall apart."
Jackson's hearing has continued to decline since his initial diagnosis. O'Brien says that he's now lost about 95% of his hearing and wears two very strong hearing aids. "[They] work very well, but he's also now being worked up for a cochlear implant," she adds. Cochlear implants are surgically implanted electronic devices that bypass the normal hearing process to give a sense of sound to people who are deaf or severely hard of hearing.
Meanwhile, the family has developed strategies to help Jackson build confidence and participate at school. "He likes to contribute in class, but the teacher doesn't just call on him," O'Brien says. "Instead, she'll tell him, 'When we're on the carpet later, I'm going to ask you for your two ideas about X.' It allows him to know that when you call on him, he's understood what you've said. We're also educating the school every step of the way."
Now Hear This
If you think your child has hearing loss, what should you do?
Trust your instincts. "A normal newborn hearing screening can sometimes lead parents to discount their intuition," McCreery, says. If you think your toddler or preschooler isn't hearing things as they should, "a hearing test is inexpensive and not time-consuming, and can give you peace of mind."
See a certified audiologist. Look for one who works with an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor. Look for a practice that has experience working with children, McCreery says. Search online for the EHDI-PALS (Early Hearing Detection & Intervention --Pediatric Audiology Links to Services) system, run by the CDC.
Connect with Hands & Voices. The online, parent-run organization is dedicated to supporting families of children who are hard of hearing. "Other parents who've had the same experiences can be amazing resources for families on what to expect, what works, and what doesn't work," McCreery says.
Teens and Stress
Kids' health issues, not just her son's, are particularly important to O'Brien, who anchored CNN's American Morning and Starting Point before launching her own production company, Starfish Media Group, in 2013. She has won three Emmys and two George Foster Peabody Awards for her reporting, and earned the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Goodermote Humanitarian Award for her reporting on Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"My daughter Cecilia, who just turned 14 the other day, was putting in 4 hours a day on homework. And she's very focused -- it wasn't 2 hours of homework and 2 hours FaceTiming her friends. We asked the school what to do, and they said, 'Have her stop after an hour.' But that didn't seem to address the bigger problem. The final straw was getting a call from her at 1 a.m. when I was in Los Angeles -- so it was 4 a.m. in New York -- and she was still working on a lab report and crying. I told her, 'Go to bed. Write a note to your teacher that you're not turning it in today. This is ridiculous.' So when WebMD asked me to cover the teens and stress story, I thought, 'This is the life I'm leading right now!'"
What's the solution? "I think there's a healthy medium between making sure kids are learning and not stressing them out," she says. "Scientific evidence shows that stress interferes with your ability to learn. Practical teaching hasn't caught up to neuroscience, and it has to. We know that kids need to work in teams, to be collaborative, to have their ideas nurtured, and not just have piles of homework."
A Wake-up Call
While she was focusing so intently on her family's health and on reporting public health issues, O'Brien spared little time for her own health. In 2013, during her last year at CNN, the pace finally caught up with her. She found herself becoming forgetful. And exhaustion was overwhelming her. "I was just crazy tired. We had these glass tables on the set and I would put my head down and not be able to pick it back up, the glass felt so cool and such a relief."
She finally sought a doctor's advice. "One of the things he did was measure my thyroid levels. On my anti-thyroid antibodies, I was told a high level is 50. My number was something like 2,450! It was crazy." O'Brien found out that she had Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks and destroys the thyroid gland over time. "It turns out that my dad also had it, and there are apparently genetic links with the disease."
O'Brien began taking daily doses of Synthroid and Cytomel, synthetic versions of two hormones normally made by the thyroid. "Within two weeks, I felt 100 times better. Obviously, I was still tired, working on an early morning show, but I didn't feel like I had been hit by a truck anymore," she says.
As many as 20% of women O'Brien's age (she turns 50 this month) have the elevated anti-thyroid antibodies that can signal Hashimoto's thyroiditis, but not all will have symptoms like exhaustion and foggy brain function. Other conditions, like perimenopausal changes, sleep disturbances, or prediabetes, could be to be blame, says Jennifer Mammen, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.
As it happened, O'Brien also found out from additional testing that her blood sugar was elevated, putting her at risk of developing diabetes. "I wasn't diabetic yet, but my levels were way at the upper end of normal," she says. She began working with a nutritionist and reforming her admittedly unhealthy ways of eating. "For a year and a half now, my blood sugar has been well within the normal range again."
Getting her health back on track has given O'Brien renewed energy and drive for the many projects she's pursuing through her Starfish Media Group, like The War Comes Home: The New Battlefront, a documentary that follows two veterans of the Iraq War who are on the brink of suicide. The film was screened at several hundred theaters in May, followed by O'Brien's taped discussion with community leaders, veterans' affairs experts, and advocates about how the country serves -- or does not serve -- veterans facing posttraumatic stress disorder.
"I find incredible satisfaction and joy in doing things for other people, and in bringing attention to things that don't get a lot of coverage," she says.
Soledad's Rules to Live By
On one recent day, Soledad O'Brien traveled to four states within 24 hours. With hectic days more common than not on her calendar, how does she stay healthy?
"Don't eat like a 14-year-old boy."
Simply aiming for a more balanced diet has improved her health dramatically, she says. She goes light on carbohydrates, and since she isn't a big red-meat eater, she dials up other proteins like beans and eggs. "I'm Cuban. The black bean is the greatest thing in the history of forever."
Keep fueled on the go.
In her "messy" handbag at all times are a single-serving pouch of almond butter and a chewy fruit and veggie snack called Veggie-Go's. "They sound disgusting but they're actually great -- and I'm very picky," she says.
Protect your sleep.
"After all the reporting I've done on sleep, I finally realized that I need to get more sleep myself!" she says. "My kids are now old enough to put themselves to bed, and I'm putting myself to bed at 9:30."
Exercise your way.
For O'Brien, the key to keeping up with exercise was finding something she really wanted to do. "I try to get on the treadmill or elliptical every day, but my favorite thing is my Bikram yoga class 3 days a week," she says.
Just say no.
TV producer Shonda Rhimes "wrote a book about her 'year of yes,' saying yes to things she was afraid of," O'Brien says. "I turn 50 this year, and I'm giving myself a year of no: Turning down those things that are not integral to what's important to me."