ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — They were told there was some risk. Most big things in life, especially those involving the heart, do.
But Sharon Erickson — Sharon Fullilove to her family — was fearless. That was one of the things that had made her a good reporter at KOB-TV.
That, and viewers sensed her big heart, her friendliness, her willingness to tell the story with compassion and, when it was warranted, unbridled joy.
Her big heart, though — well, there’s the catch.
Erickson, 30, had always been active. As an accomplished dancer, she had performed with ballet companies in Salt Lake City and Houston. She had been an Air Force Academy cadet training to be a F-15E fighter pilot. She had been a cheerleader, a hurdle jumper, a swim-team member, a comedic actress and, most recently, a reporter willing to take stunt jumps for a TV segment on a new State Fair exhibit.
Ten years before, Erickson had started experiencing fainting spells, her heart dangerously slowed by the errant commands of the vagus nerve.
So six years ago, Erickson had surgery to implant a pacemaker, a small battery-powered device that sent electrical impulses to her heart to counteract the nerve’s erratic firings.
The device, the size of a silver dollar, is embedded below the collarbone and wired through a vein to the heart — a minor surgical procedure, with only a 2 percent risk of complications, according to the American Heart Association.
Erickson’s pacemaker was an older model, not “MRI-friendly,” and she needed an MRI to pinpoint the pain she was having from a disk in her neck, the result of many TV stunts over the years.
“She figured that since the first implant was such a piece of cake that replacing it would be just as easy,” said her mother, Michaela “Micki” Shafer, an Air Force colonel and critical care nurse based in Washington, D.C.
It should have been easy.
Erickson’s surgery was scheduled at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque for Sept. 27 — still time, she hoped, to be back at work to help cover the Balloon Fiesta.
It would have been her first fiesta since she arrived at KOB in January. In that short time, her co-workers say, she had become a favorite with viewers — and with them.
“She truly was a beautiful girl inside and out,” said Antoinette Antonio, weekday morning anchor and one of Erickson’s closest friends.
Erickson had not planned on becoming a journalist or TV star. She wanted to be a flying star. She wanted to pilot a jet. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her Air Force parents.
The Air Force Academy was the only college she applied to.
But six months after arriving at the prestigious academy in 1999, Erickson came crashing to the ground. She had been raped, she said, by a upperclassman.
“Sharon was a goody-two-shoes kind of girl,” Shafer said. “But this completely threw her out of whack.”
Erickson, then 19, left the academy, lost her smile, lost her fearlessness and experienced her first fainting spell.
For months, she said nothing.
Then, she fought back.
And she spoke out as one of several brave women who exposed the academy’s years of covering up sexual assaults of female cadets, discouraging them from reporting rapes, then punishing them when they did.
Their stories were covered by local and national media, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair and “Oprah.”
“That’s why she became a reporter,” Shafer said. “She found out that people cared about her story, and so she thought, well, for Pete’s sake, maybe telling other people’s stories can make a difference.”
Nothing, it seemed, would stop her again.
Until her heart did.
Although the details remain unclear, Shafer said it appears that during surgery the pacemaker wire may have torn open a vein or portion of heart, releasing a torrent of blood into Erickson’s chest cavity.
Surgeons worked seven hours trying to bring her back, and they did, almost. Her heart began beating again, her organs continued to function.
“But we never got a brain wave back,” Shafer said.
Erickson was kept on life support until Saturday, when her kidneys, liver and pancreas could be harvested for transplanting.
It was Erickson’s last request.
Knowing her daughter’s death saved other lives helps ease the pain, a little, Shafer said.
At Shafer’s request, an autopsy was performed Monday to determine what went wrong in the hopes it can be prevented in the future.
Maybe that, too, will help.
So might the broadcast journalism scholarship at the University of New Mexico to be established by family and friends in Erickson’s name.
More than anything, what helps now is hearing how Erickson helped others, how her short, happy life affected so many, including those who knew her only through their television sets.
News items about Erickson, posted this week on KOB and Journal websites, have been among the most read, though now it is left to others to tell her story.
“She would have loved that,” Shafer said. “She would have loved it all.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline Gutierrez Krueger at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal