WAFB news anchor Donna Britt announced her retirement Wednesday, almost 11 months after she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The longtime local television personality will make her last appearance on the 6 p.m. newscast on June 13, WAFB announced on its website. Britt, 59, and the now-retired George Sells created a news anchor team that moved the station to the top of the local ratings, said Robb Hays, WAFB news director.
“She’s also been such a mentor to so many over the years — young reporters, young producers, news director," Hays said. "She’s seen so much. With 37 years, she’s really had her finger on the pulse of the community. With the many difficult stories we’ve had to go through, especially in the past couple of years, we’ve been able to get her trusted input and advice on how to tell the story. I think viewers have learned to trust Donna’s very calm and reassuring voice.”
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That voice, however, suffered from the disease, which was causing other problems nine months before her diagnosis.
“It’s greatly slowed down my delivery, and for someone that’s been on the air 36 years with fluid and concise speaking, it’s humiliating,” Britt said.
ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body, causing the loss of muscle control, paralysis and, eventually, death. Britt has kept viewers aware of her condition through social media, and says she hopes she educated them about ALS.
"I’ve read just about everyone’s comments over the past 11 months, and you wouldn’t believe how many people that have had a similar diagnosis have found so much strength in Donna, that have thanked her for being so open about it and keeping them aware of her situation and being able to talk openly about ALS," Hays said.
When Britt announced the diagnosis last July, she had already lost the use of her legs, and the disease also affected one arm and eight fingers. The disease has continued to ravage her muscles. When she leans over to get something out of a lower desk drawer, she said, she struggles getting back up.
“I use my hands like … parentheses to pick up things with both hands,” she said. “I have a little bit of thumb, but I can’t use it to pick up anything heavy because it’s not strong enough. My arms have become T-Rex arms. In an ALS patient, when your muscle dies, the skin caves in where your muscle had been a trampoline that held it up. So, you can see by my stick arms how much has gone.
“So, it’s a good sign maybe it’s time to stop working, right?”
Britt has not lacked for support. Co-workers built a ramp so she could get to the anchor desk in her motorized wheelchair. Many groups have cooked food for her family — the Louisiana Capitol press corps, where her husband, Advocate Capitol Bureau chief Mark Ballard works; the Parents Guild at Episcopal School, where Britt once volunteered; fellow First United Methodist Church members; co-workers and others.
“We’ve been able to eat a lot of times without stress being so much on Mark to cook, because Mark is now doing the laundry, cleaning the dishes, cooking the meal, picking me up sometimes 11 or 15 times in a day,” Britt said. “He’s just really pressing hard, so those meals have been such stress relievers, I can’t say enough about that.”
“That’s the way south Louisiana loves you. They cook from the heart, and they deliver something from their kitchen. That’s really strong stuff.”
Britt continued broadcasting the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. weeknight newscasts after her diagnosis until Oct. 16., 2017, when she gave up the later time slot. Britt said the work and interaction with colleagues was great for her morale but are taking a physical toll.
“It’s a way of prolonging my life, really,” Britt said. “I don’t want to disappoint people, because people are constantly telling me how proud they are that I’m slugging along. But I need time to be with my family, and when I see myself losing so much, like muscles in my face. I now have what looks like a black eye, but it’s just an artery in my eye that lost muscle that was on top of it. When you see all that happening, like a Jenga game collapsing, you know it’s time.”