ABC Sport broadcaster Karen Tighe on suffering significant memory loss after contracting viral encephalitis

Karen Tighe should be behind the mic, expertly steering ABC Radio’s sporting coverage as she usually does each summer.

But this year she’s sidelined, slowly recovering from life-threatening inflammation of the brain that struck her down in early March.

While physically she’s now in good shape, the award-winning broadcaster, whose job relies on swift recall of sporting facts and figures, is unable to remember the names of top sportsmen and women that once rolled off her tongue with ease.

During our interview, she variously refers to “our world number one women’s tennis player”, “the captain of the Australian men’s cricket team” and “our women’s soccer team”.

She can picture people and teams but the names — Ash Barty, Tim Paine, the Matildas — frustratingly, just won’t come.

Karen Tighe in hospital in Perth, desperately unwell as doctors worked to reduce the swelling in her brain.(Supplied: Karen Tighe)

“My short-term memory is absolutely shot and that’s the really awful thing,” says Tighe.

“I can recognise sportsmen and women, our Prime Minister and Premier, world leaders, and if you wrote me their names mixed in with a whole heap of other names I’d quickly find them but if it’s me on my own I just can’t say that name off the top of my head and that’s why I can’t go back to work at the moment.

“It’s the weirdest feeling.”

A woman holding a trophy with a man and child either side of her.
Within weeks of this photo being taken with husband Glenn Mitchell and son James, Tighe became seriously ill.(Supplied: Karen Tighe)

But 10 months ago, things were so much worse.

During the early, dangerous days, as her brain swelled inside her head, Tighe couldn’t even recognise her husband, fellow broadcaster Glenn Mitchell, and 14-year-old son James, and it was feared she may not survive.

“Karen was in hospital and I was telling her James had done well at school and she said, ‘who’s James?'” recalls Mitchell.

“And I said, ‘do you know who I am?’ And she responded, ‘of course I know who you are, you’re 60 minutes.’

“So, in those early stages she had no idea who I was or who her son was, and it was fairly confronting.

“The doctor said she had a 30 per cent chance of passing away if they couldn’t get the swelling significantly under control early, so it was pretty frightening.”

‘The most challenging thing I have ever gone through’

2020 had kicked off on a high note for Karen Tighe.

In mid-February, her contribution to sport broadcasting over three decades was recognised with a prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award and a standing ovation at the Sport Australia Media Awards in Sydney.

“It was such a lovely night,” she says.

“My family was invited, it was just the most beautiful evening and everyone there was so lovely to me.”

A few weeks later, at home in Perth, busy hosting Summer Grandstand she became increasingly unwell over the weekend, describing it as “just feeling off”.

On the Sunday afternoon, she put herself to bed. By Wednesday, she couldn’t even get out of bed to go to a doctor’s appointment.

A locum came to see her at home and sent her to hospital.

“Karen couldn’t remember her date of birth, or our street address, and the doctor advised us to get straight to emergency,” says Mitchell.

“They diagnosed her with viral encephalitis caused by the cold sore virus, herpes simplex.

“It lies dormant in your body and if you get rundown it normally materializes again as a cold sore, but one in 200,000 cases, I was told, goes to the brain and that’s what happened to Karen.

“So, then she ended up with swelling on the temporal lobe and that’s what’s caused all the memory issues.”

Black and white photo of Tighe in broadcast box with tennis court in background.
Tighe has been a part of ABC Sport coverage on TV and radio for 31 years.(ABC Archives)

Tighe was in hospital for nine days, but remembers very little of it, and remained on an intravenous drip at home for 12 days after that.

In the following months, her hair fell out for weeks on end, she suffered unrelenting nausea that sometimes confined her to bed for a week at a time, as well as terrifying anxiety.

“With the anxiety, it sounds very strange, but I could not stay in the house on my own, even in the daytime. I was scared that somebody might break into the house.

“I would drive my son to school and then I was just too scared to go back home so I’d drive around or go to a cafe where there were people.

“When it started to get dark, I became terrified, shaking, and checking all the doors were locked.

“I’ve never been like that before and I was so upset because I thought this will never go away and I will be like this for the rest of my life and I just found that so hard to cope with.”

Recovery from encephalitis, or any brain injury, can be excruciatingly slow and everyone’s experience is different.

Tighe has overcome the anxiety with some low-dose medication, but the memory impairment, mainly relating to names and descriptive words, takes a long time to heal.

Remembering her husband and son’s names returned quite quickly, but recalling other family members, friends and colleagues has taken longer.

It was three months before Tighe could remember her home address and the name of the hospital, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, where she was treated.

She’s struggled with the fact there’s no quick fix.

“Grandstand in the summer months was then six months away and I thought surely I will be fine by then or surely there must be something that I can do or take to help speed up the brain but the doctors just said, ‘no, you just have to give the brain time and this can be a frustrating thing because it’s out of your control.’

“It’s not like having a broken leg or an operation where you’ve got stitches and you can see your body healing, and visually it can be very hard for people to even think that there is anything wrong with you.

“A year for me will be next March and just in this last month I have felt that I have turned a corner and I’m finding more and more names I’m getting access to, like Steve Smith, so that that’s making me feel very positive.”

Zoe Daniel had the same illness and provided some hope

During the frightening and bewildering weeks after she fell ill, a message via Twitter gave Tighe and Mitchell a huge amount of hope.

The ABC’s former foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel, who’d worked with them both at the Athens Olympics in 2004, reached out after seeing a Mitchell tweet updating on her condition.

A news reporter stands some distance from the White House in Washington looking serious.
As the ABC’s Washington Bureau Chief, Zoe Daniel spent four years watching Donald Trump shape the world.(ABC News)

Daniel had herself suffered viral encephalitis at the age of 24 and ended up in an induced coma.

She knew exactly what they were going through.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” recalls Zoe Daniel.

“I was picked up by ambulance from the doctor’s surgery [in Lismore where I was living] and I remember vividly being in the ambulance, obviously completely out of it, looking out the back at the setting sun and the ambos saying ‘stay with us, Zoe, please stay with us’.

“So, I was obviously quite close to the edge.

“My parents were living in Tasmania at the time and while I was drifting in and out of consciousness, I was told that my uncle was driving down from Brisbane and that my parents were both flying up and I remember thinking, ‘I must be going to die.'”

She ended up in intensive care and was in hospital for several weeks, off work for at least three months, was only able to work part time at first, and took 12 months to return to ‘normal’.

Daniel experienced similar memory problems.

“I think it’s to do with being able to grasp facts that you would have otherwise have been able to grasp very quickly — remembering names, dates locations and things like that, when you’re trying to remember something feeling that it’s just on the edge of your memory that you can’t quite grasp,” says Daniel.

“It’s quite frustrating and in my case, I had some speech issues too, some slurring.

“But, over time, things just sort of slipped back into place.”

Zoe Daniel went on to be a highly successful journalist, securing three ABC foreign postings to Africa, South East Asia and North America, where she ran the Washington bureau and covered the election of Donald Trump.

In phone calls with Mitchell, she was keen to reassure him and Tighe that there was a path to recovery, albeit a difficult and challenging one.

“It’s an incredibly stressful experience for not only for the patient but also for the family,” says Daniel.

“So, I tried to shed some light on how that path to recovery might evolve and to try to explain some of the feelings that Karen might be having.

“It’s difficult to articulate how you are feeling through all the confusion, that fear and lack of clarity when your brain is not quite working the way that it should and feeling like your personality is lost, that sense of, ‘will I get myself back?’

“It’s all very confusing and scary.”

Tighe says hearing of Daniel’s experience, and that of a local Perth woman who also got in touch, made a big difference in her ability to cope.

“It makes me want to cry because Zoe was so kind to contact us,” says Tighe.

“And it’s given me great confidence and hope, hearing what she experienced and seeing what she has then gone on to do in her career.

Woman and man wearing headphones in broadcasting box.
Tighe on air with husband and fellow broadcaster Glenn Mitchell.(Supplied: Karen Tighe)

Karen Tighe is deeply grateful for the “wonderful” support from her medical team, family, friends and ABC colleagues, but her greatest support has been husband Glenn, who a decade ago leant on her after suffering his own serious health battle.

“For me this has been a complete 180,” says Mitchell.

“I left the ABC after a breakdown in the middle of 2011, and then a suicide attempt, and it was a pretty harrowing time and Karen was very much my carer back then.

“So, this is like me returning the favour for what she did for me.

“And I think she’s been incredibly, incredibly resilient throughout this.

“At the very beginning you are told that we don’t really know what the outcome is here, we expect that you’ll get your memory back but there is no guarantee and while there have been levels of frustration, I think most of us would display a lot more than what she has.

“She just takes each day as it comes and says, ‘hopefully every day something more will return’, which is a fairly admirable way to look at things.

“I’m not too sure I would be able to do it.”

A trailblazer for women in sport broadcasting

February 22, 2021 is World Encephalitis Day and Karen Tighe is planning on helping to raise awareness of the illness by speaking publicly about her experience.

But what she’s most looking forward to doing is getting back to talking about sport, which has been a lifelong passion.

She hopes to be back on air by October next year.

“Sport has always been something I’ve enjoyed,” says Tighe.

“I was a very average sports person myself — I played netball and used to own a horse — but I always loved watching sport, loved watching the cricket, I just love every sport and I think that for so many of us in Australia sport is something which connects us.”

After graduating from university in 1989, she sent letters and a videotape of her presenting to camera to all the TV stations in Sydney and landed an on-air job with ABC TV Sport, then later moved to radio with ABC Grandstand.

She’s covered the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, World Championships in swimming, basketball and netball and six Paralympics, which she regards as career highlights, along with hosting the announcement of Sydney winning the 2000 Olympics, and being on air at events alongside her husband, Glenn.

There’s been cricket, rugby league, golf and tennis coverage and four years on the sport comedy TV show, Live and Sweaty, hosted by Andrew Denton and later Libbi Gorr as Elle McFeast.

“I have felt so blessed,” says Tighe.

“When you’re preparing for an event and having some lovely chats with our high-profile athletes, to hear their stories — I’ve always been really interested in people’s stories and there are wonderful stories out there — you just think to yourself, ‘how lucky am I?’

Tighe in broadcasting box alongside woman in a wheelchair, floor manager and a man all wearing headphones.
Covering six Paralympics has been one of the highlights of Tighe’s career, pictured here alongside champion wheelchair racer Louise Sauvage .(Supplied: Karen Tighe)

“I felt a connection with the Paralympic movement from the very first Games I attended in Barcelona in 1992, where I was introduced to wheelchair racer Louise Sauvage and swimmer Priya Cooper, who debuted at those Games and both went on to win multiple gold medals in their careers.

When Tighe started in sport broadcasting, women were few and far between and she’s glad to see that changing.

“I haven’t been through awful discrimination like so many other women have, I really had so much support over my career, but there just weren’t many women around,” she says.

“And when I received that award this year, I was so thrilled that there’ve been such big steps forward in the last few years.

“I am not a commentator, that was never an ambition for me, but I am so excited to see some wonderful women who are wonderful commentators getting that opportunity and being respected, women like Kelli Underwood who has worked her backside off and I am so proud of her, and the way cricket has opened up with women as expert commentators and the excellent Allison Mitchell, that is a joy to me.

“We still have a way to go but the ABC has always been a step ahead of the rest.”

And Tighe has been out front, leading the way.

Black and white photo of Tighe and cameraman interviewing cyclists.
Tighe started with ABC TV Sport in 1989.(ABC Archives)

“As a trailblazer for women in sports media, Karen has inspired generations of women who have followed,” says head of ABC Sport, Nick Morris.

“Her longevity at the forefront of sports media is testament to her connection with the audience and the esteem she is held in by the sporting community.

“Karen has an amazing warmth on air and, coupled with her encyclopaedic knowledge of so many sports and athletes, that makes you want to lean in and hear what she is saying or who she is talking to.”

This is only the second summer in 31 years that Karen Tighe isn’t working (the other time was when her son was born) and ABC Radio listeners are missing her.

“It is safe to say Karen is an audience favourite,” says Morris.

And that’s been a welcome positive from a traumatic experience says Glenn Mitchell.

“Karen has always been someone who has no ego,” he says.

“When she won that award she kept saying, ‘I don’t deserve this, X, Y, Z person should be ahead of me,’ but whenever I put something on Twitter about her illness, people would reply wishing her well and saying, ‘Karen, we love you.’

“And I used to say to her, over all the time that you’ve been at the ABC, 30 years now, you’ve been in people’s houses every weekend throughout the summer months and there is a genuine affection for you which I think in some ways she never quite understood and it’s been a nice affirmation for her, because she’s always played herself down, so that’s been a good thing.”

Tighe will spend this summer watching her son play cricket — a rare treat — with an ear tuned into ABC Sport, patiently playing the long game until she finds the elusive key to that locked door and can retrieve those lost names.

“When you go through something like this, it shocks you so much and it’s made me think, you know, we’re not all going to live forever,” says Tighe.

“And it’s made me focus on what’s important in life, appreciate the good days and the simple things, like watching my boy play cricket.

“I’m just appreciating this summer and hopefully things will fall into place for next year.

“I’m very confident my memory will come back but I just need to give myself a bit more time.”

Listen to ABC Sport and Summer Grandstand on the ABC Listen App

Amelia J. Bell

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