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Deborah Roberts on Husband Al Roker’s ‘Very, Very Critical’ Health Crisis: ‘You’ve Got to Advocate’ 

The ABC correspondent advises family caregivers to ‘jump in and assert yourself’

spinner image Deborah Roberts and Al Roker during a Christmas caroling surprise on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.
Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images

ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts, 62, is sharing powerful words of wisdom for caregivers after her husband Al Roker’s recent life-threatening health crisis.

The Today show anchor, 68, was in a “very, very critical” state, Roberts says, and she describes the situation as “one of the most exhausting and difficult things I ever had to cope with.” Thankfully, Roker is on the road to recovery.

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Roker’s health issues began in November, when he was awakened by sharp stomach pains. Tests revealed he had blood clots in his lungs that may have formed due to his September bout with COVID-19. While he was being treated for the clots, doctors determined Roker was bleeding internally. To find the source of the internal bleeding, doctors performed surgery and discovered a perforation in his duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. During subsequent surgeries, Roker’s colon was resectioned and his gall bladder was removed. Roker returned to the Today show in January. 

In a recent interview, speaking from the streets of New York City, where she was enjoying the post-endorphin rush from a just-finished run, Roberts was eager to share what she learned from the ordeal and what caregivers need to know for both the patient’s recovery and their own personal survival. 

How is Al’s health?

Thankfully, he is doing so much better, and he is making a recovery. So many people have reached out. The goodwill has been just overwhelming for us, and he’s doing really well. I’m so grateful to say that he’s on his way. 

How was it for you as the spouse of someone dealing with a health crisis?

It’s one of the most exhausting and difficult things I ever had to cope with, and I pray I never have to again. 

On the other hand, you learn you can step up and do whatever you need to do. That whole fight-or-flight [response] is there for protecting your family. I never thought I would be capable of that — running back and forth to the hospital and taking care of my family without falling apart — but you do what you have to do to help somebody in your life and restore them. It’s very, very difficult. 

My whole family, after the crisis subsided, we almost collapsed. We didn’t realize the adrenaline rush of running and gunning every day to look after him. I didn’t appreciate how tough it was until the fog had started to clear and the dust was starting to settle. That’s when I realized how hard it was. 

Get it done, get him well, take care of him: That was my goal.

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How does a health event like that change your life? 

I said to Al last night, “We’re getting to be pretty boring.” We had to accept being bored for a while. The doctor said that’s good, because boring means status quo. So we haven’t really been going out as much as we used to, mostly because we sort of fell into this rhythm — of being at home, checking in with each other, especially once he went back to work and I really jumped back into work. I think we are really holding tight to each other. I think we’re valuing our time with each other a lot more. 

Deborah Roberts’ tips for caregivers in a crisis

  • Assert yourself.
  • Ask doctors and nurses questions.
  • Be part of the care: Help guide doctors and nurses.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Draw from your support network: friends, family, your church.

We’re just content to go out to an early dinner, the two of us, chat a little bit, and get home and go to bed early. For a while there, Al had to go to bed early. He was so exhausted, his body was so depleted, that he was going to bed every night at, let’s say, 7:30 p.m. We stay up a little past that now, but we fell into this very quiet, soothing, loving rhythm of just spending time with each other, checking in, having conversations about life and how we feel. 

That’s been one little blessing that’s come out of this. I think we pulled each other close to each other. 

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What advice would you give to other spouses and caregivers after going through your own family’s health crisis?

First of all, I would say what people said to me: Not only do you need to focus on your loved one, you’ve got to advocate. I never understood when I had heard people say how advocacy is key in a health crisis. I never realized. I thought I knew what it was all about — being there and taking notes and helping. No. When somebody is going through a crisis, you have got to pay attention, ask the doctors questions. You kind of even have to problem solve sometimes, because oftentimes you’re talking about medicine, the history of the person. You have to really jump in and assert yourself and be annoying. 

I did all that, and I helped brainstorm things with Al on how to treat Al: 'And by the way, did you know he had this and that prior to this?' I helped answer questions and also in some ways guide the care he was getting. I certainly wanted to make sure he was being looked at as a human being and not just as a case. 

I was fortunate that ABC allowed me to be able to take generous amounts of time away just to look after him. But even if you can’t, you’re just in and out, make yourself a presence with doctors and the nurses. Nurses are so vital; they really care for the day-to-day with the patients. 

So, I would say: Really get in there and roll up your sleeves and be part of the care. 

Also, take care of yourself. I remember my brother, and a couple other people when they realized how intense this was, they kept saying to me, “What are you doing for you?” I felt so selfish to even think about me: Are you kidding me? This is all about him. We’re just trying to make sure he makes it, because he truly was in a very, very critical state. 

However, they were right, and I did find moments where in the morning before I would come see him, I would go for a run around the loop in the park, and then in my workout clothes I would come straight to the hospital. Or sometimes I would just jog down to the hospital and see him. So I gave myself the benefit of a little bit of care and being outside and thinking, clearing my head and then going to check on him.

I think that’s the reason I was able to sustain and take care of myself. It was a real hamster wheel, but I tried to take care of myself along the way. And draw from your support network. You’ve got to have friends, family, your church or any kind of spiritual group you have in your life. You’ve got to draw from those people because when you’re tired, you just feel sort of helpless. Those folks can lift you up.

Deborah Roberts’ new book, Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life, showcases lessons learned from educators and is in stores now.

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