Erika Lauren Erika Lauren
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It may not look like it, but Erika Lauren really is excited to see you. 

Gone are the days when she would jump out of her chair, run over and give you a huge hug. Now, you are more likely to get a smile and a slight wave as she lounges with her feet propped on the couch.

For the 30-year-old reality TV show veteran and radio co-host of The Alan Cox Show on 100.7 WMMS, the change in her behavior doesn’t mean she’s not excited to see you. She really does want to leap up and tackle you. But she might pass out if she does — like actually fall to the ground. 

In March, Lauren was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a little-understood condition that affects blood flow, especially when sitting or standing. While it affects everyone differently, the symptoms have been debilitating for Lauren, severely altering how she interacts with the world around her. 

She used to be the most social of creatures. During a typical weekend, Lauren might have hosted an event at Grays Armory, performed with her band, Hawkeye, at the Agora or danced the night away at FWD Day & Night Club. 

These days, she takes life hour by hour. Most of her time is spent in her Fairview Park home, reclining on the gray sectional, flanked by a plate of salty bacon to increase her blood pressure and a Liquid I.V. electrolyte drink to help her stay hydrated. 

If you haven’t heard of POTS, you stand with the vast majority. The condition is barely understood in the medical community and hardly known at all in the public. For many with the syndrome, the inability to regulate their blood pressure causes lightheadedness, rapid heart beat and fainting. 

For Lauren, it’s been a debilitating mix of those symptoms and more: headaches, extreme energy loss, all layered with bouts of depression and anxiety. 

“POTS has been a life-ruiner,” Lauren says as she wipes away tears. “I can only do about 10 percent of what I used to do and no amount of willpower can make me feel better.”

Life for Lauren can be divided into two parts: 2018 and everything that came before. 

She grew up south of Chicago in suburban Frankfort, Illinois. “Things got real in Frankfort when we got an Applebee’s,” says Lauren. “There just wasn’t always a ton to do there.”

After starting college at Illinois State University, she transferred to Columbia College Chicago to study arts entertainment and media management. It was her first opportunity to fully immerse herself in the radio world that would one day become her career. 

“I grew up listening to [WKSC’s] DreX in the morning,” she recalls. “I would be laughing the whole time and thinking, Hey, I want to do that!

During her senior year, she saw a casting call for the Real World, MTV’s iconic reality show that puts strangers in a house together with their every move broadcast for the world to see. She saw the show as a way to break into the entertainment industry, characterizing herself on an audition video as a “rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter with a little bit of sass.” 

Lauren was cast in the 23rd season of the show, set in Washington D.C. For three months in 2009, she lived in a 10,800-square-foot house in Dupont Circle. As soon as the cameras started rolling, the experience became more taxing than the recent graduate anticipated. 

In a dramatic exit, she moved out before filming was completed. “I’m sometimes known as the girl who cried all the time on the show,” she laughs. “There’s no way to prepare for that invasion of privacy.”

With Real World episodes set to air in the fall, Lauren hoped to parlay the exposure into more media appearances. She followed her boyfriend, Ian Ver, back to his childhood roots in Cleveland and began reaching out to radio executives to see if she might be able to get some airtime. 

A chance call to Bo Matthews, then-program director for WMMS, earned her a spot as a phone screener for The Alan Cox Show, taking listener calls and chiming in occasionally on the microphone. After six months, management promoted her to an on-air member. 

“It was suddenly like all bets were off and the muzzle was pulled from my mouth,” she says. “I knew I had to buckle down, grow up, work on my timing and be the best co-host I could possibly be.”

Lauren occupies the middle ground between Alan Cox and Bill Squire, two quick-witted and fast-talking comedians opining on everything from politics to viral videos to the importance of top sheets. 

“Erika brings a ton of genuine perspective to the show,” says Squire. “She is always gracious, helpful and can offer a balanced view that Alan and I just don’t have.” 

The radio life was exactly what Lauren wanted. But two years into her stint at WMMS, her health started affecting her career dreams. She began to experience frequent headaches, but chalked them up to the normal pains of a professional balancing home, work and music. 

“Erika and I were always out and about,” says Ver, who was also a member of Hawkeye. “Between gigs, promotional events and appearances she needed to make for the station, we might only run into each other on stage or on a random Wednesday night in the house.”

Still, they made it work. Ian proposed to her onstage during a 2014 performance at the Foundry in Lakewood, splicing in “Never Before,” a song he wrote for her seven years earlier, before dropping to one knee right before the last song of their set. 

But in 2017, everything changed. 

Her headaches turned into a daily haziness, dizziness and sensitivity to light that often required her to spend three or four hours of the day in her bedroom surrounded by darkness and silence. 

As much as she tried to not let it affect her work, she often found it difficult to focus for the entirety of the show and even missed a handful of days because the pain was so bad. 

In January 2018, her symptoms worsened. “Every day, I woke up feeling off,” says Lauren. “On good days, I felt horrible. On bad days, I felt like I was going to die.”

Then on Feb. 6, she fainted for the first time. One minute she was reading a live commercial on-air, and the next she was on the ground. 

“It was very scary,” recalls Squire. “I was out of the room at the time. I came back and she was on the floor. Alan and I were scrambling to see what we could do to help her and to keep the show going, but it was a bit of a panic.”

After regaining consciousness, she was taken to the emergency room as a precaution. In the car with Ver, Lauren feared the worst. She began composing her goodbyes to family and friends. 

At the hospital, the doctors ran bloodwork and ordered medical tests — but all the results came back normal. “I kept asking, ‘How?’ ” Lauren remembers. “ ‘How could I pass out on live radio and no one could tell me what was wrong?’ ”

The next day, she took an immediate and indefinite medical leave from the radio show to figure out what was wrong. What followed was a “two month cycle of hell,” Lauren says. 

She would faint, go to the hospital and then get released with normal test results. At night, she would go to sleep afraid she wouldn’t wake up the next morning. 

“There just didn’t seem to be any answers,” says Lauren. “There were some doctors who wrote me off as a psych patient, and I started believing maybe it was anxiety.”

A Cleveland Clinic psychologist ruled out clinical anxiety, but she thought Lauren might have an obscure syndrome called POTS — a condition she had heard about from a colleague. 

In early March, Lauren underwent a tilt table test — a procedure that looks as though it’s ripped from the pages of Mary Shelley — at the Clinic. Wired to monitors, she was strapped lying face-up on a table. Then the doctor rotates the platform from a horizontal to a standing position to gauge her response. Lauren browned out almost immediately, which confirmed a POTS diagnosis. 

“Though I didn’t feel any better, at least there was suddenly a name for what I had,” says Lauren. “The next step was to try to find out something about it.”

In order to fully understand POTS, you need to not only comprehend human physiology but also grasp the physics involved in the simple act of standing up. 

Dr. Blair Grubb, distinguished university professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Toledo, has devoted more than 30 years to this very topic. Regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on POTS, Grubb explains that when you stand, gravity attempts to pull down roughly one-third of your body’s blood volume. The brain senses the change and tells your heart to beat faster and more forcibly while also instructing the blood vessels in the lower half of your body to constrict to one-third their size.

“Once you’re upright, you have to maintain those changes because gravity will just keep on pulling on you,” says Grubb. Otherwise, the blood rushes from your brain, which leads to fainting. “If you can’t maintain, gravity wins, and you lose,” he says.

POTS falls under the umbrella of dysautonomia, a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. Although Grubb can point to medical papers from the 1870s that describe POTS, the condition was only officially diagnosed in 1993. An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people are living with the syndrome in the United States, although an exact number is difficult to determine because so little is known about it. A cause has not been definitively identified, there is no cure, and treatment — which ranges from dietary restrictions to beta-blockers to lifestyle therapy — varies depending on individual symptoms. 

Grubb stresses that a key part of treatment involves attending to the mind as much as the body, because many afflicted with POTS often look the same as they did before the syndrome manifests. 

“Patients can become angry, mean, bitter, tearful and withdrawn,” says Grubb. “Many become ostracized, lose their employment, surrender contact with the world and eventually fade into nothingness.” 

Lauren knows that progression of emotions all too well. 

Physically, her energy level is a fraction of what she calls her “old life.” Some days, getting off the couch is a monumental effort. She frequently needs a motorized cart for a run through the grocery store. 

In late May, she returned to The Alan Cox Show, just in time for the annual Alan Cox Show Comedy Tour, a signature event she used as her goalpost to recovery. It was her first time back on the air since she had fainted months earlier. 

“It was amazing to be able to talk about POTS on the air,” she says. “Putting words to all the pain I had been experiencing and starting to let people know about this mystery illness was emotional and empowering.” 

Since then, Lauren spends less time at WMMS’ Independence studio than before the diagnosis. Instead, she wakes up around 6:30 a.m. and begins her daily routine of salty foods and hydrating with electrolytes. She spends as much time as possible with her feet up, gathering energy in her living-room-turned-sanctuary that’s decorated with fresh peonies, bright decorative pillows and wall wreaths she crafted herself.

At 10:30 a.m., she brushes up on the latest pop culture news or quirky stories that would make for good radio fodder. At the studio about two hours before the show airs, she sits in a special reclining chair that helps her blood flow by keeping her feet off the ground. 

But even then, Lauren can begin feeling dizzy or faint during the four-hour afternoon-drive show and needs to lie down in a room just a few doors from the recording studio. 

By 6:30 p.m., she’s wiped out, barely able to make it back home before completely passing out. Some days she is able to pull off this routine; others times, she can’t. 

“When she has a decent day, we relish that day,” says Ver. “But they’re few and far between.”

Since her diagnosis, Lauren has cycled through several medications searching for an effective combination, from pills that slow down her heart rate to antidepressants that help manage the fainting spells. The treatments have wreaked havoc on her sleep schedule, which then exacerbated her already fragile mental state. 

In April, one beta-blocker she took to manage her heart rhythms affected her sleep so dramatically that she found herself Googling different ways of suicide.

“I was out of my mind,” admits Lauren, getting choked up. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting better and just couldn’t accept that there is no cure to this thing that has destroyed my life.”

Still Lauren is determined to improve. She strictly adheres to her new lifestyle, including a low-carb diet and light exercise. 

“I used to fly by the seat of my pants, forget my keys, be generally unorganized,” says Lauren. “Now I am constantly thinking ahead, writing reminder notes and keeping focused on sharing gratitude with those around me.”

It’s forced Ver to make changes, too.

“I miss being able to take Erika out for a simple dinner,” he says. “Now we spend a lot of great time at home together, but that’s a lot different than our lives out and about from only two years ago.” 

• • • • •

With the energy she can muster, Lauren is working to build awareness of POTS. 

The profile of the syndrome got a significant boost in June when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, whose wife, Tori, suffers from the condition, spoke at the annual meeting of Dysautonomia International, a nonprofit association dedicated to education, research and patient support. 

“We need more people like that to come forward,” says Lauren. “There aren’t a lot of high profile events or fundraisers associated with POTS. Just a ton of blank looks when you try to explain this illness that has wrecked your life.”

In June, Lauren met a group with POTS at the Cleveland Clinic. Before that, she had never been able to sit and chat with others in the same situation. Most POTS patients are women; this group’s participants ranged from young women who could no longer play the sports they loved to middle-aged women whose friend circles disappeared when they could no longer attend social events. 

“Before meeting those women, I felt like I was the only one in the world struggling in this way with POTS,” says Lauren. “It was so unbelievably validating to my experience. I’m looking forward to having that group over to my house at some point soon when I can get up the energy.” 

But like so much in her life since the diagnosis, even that is uncertain. Her contract with The Alan Cox Show is up in 2019. Given her decreased participation this past year, she is not sure what is ahead for her in broadcasting. 

“I just need to have a few good days in a row, and that hasn’t happened in a long while,” says Lauren. “There’s so much I want to do in life, but for right now, I just want to be able to easily get up off of this couch and give my friends a hug.”

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