Diabetes Forecast

Bret Michaels: In His Own Words

The inside story of the rocker's health crisis and his amazing comeback

By Carolyn Butler ,

This is Bret Michaels: It's early September at the Maryland State Fair and he's crooning, he's jamming, he's jump-kicking, and his fans are screaming. Improbably bronzed in tight jeans, a cut-off concert tee bearing his own image, and his signature bandanna-and-cowboy-hat combo, Michaels belts his way through his band Poison's greatest hits, a few cover songs, and some recent solo tunes, and then, in a crescendo of cheap beer, nostalgia, and burning hot guitar work, the mostly middle-aged crowd gleefully screeches along to the anthem that made his name, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."

This is Bret Michaels: 1980s hair-band demigod, lovelorn reality-TV star, Trump-crowned Apprentice, and, really and truly, passionate advocate for people with diabetes, the disease he has lived with since the age of 6.

The State Fair set is relatively short, with two well-timed breaks so that Michaels can check his blood glucose. After the show, he graciously greets and poses for photos with every last friend, fan, and hanger-on who makes it backstage. But it's clear that he's exhausted.

This is Bret Michaels: a man who four months earlier was lying in the emergency room with only a 50-50 shot of making it out in one piece.

"I'm only running at about 80 percent," he admits, long after the Maryland gig is over, "but I'm giving 100 percent of that 80 percent. Because, look, after what I've been through—I've got this second chance, and I'm going to make the most of still being here."

As hard as it may be to remember now, 2010 began on an upswing for Michaels: He was crisscrossing the country on his solo "Custom Built" tour and steadily trouncing the competition on Celebrity Apprentice. But in April, Michaels, 47, was sidelined by an emergency appendectomy; just weeks later, he landed in the hospital again, this time for what proved to be an excruciatingly painful and life-threatening brain hemorrhage. He made it through that health crisis—struggling to get his blood glucose under control, all the while—only to have a mild "warning stroke" a month later, which led to the discovery of a hole in his heart.

Three hospital stints within a period of just six weeks looked mighty grim to those following the news reports and tabloid headlines. And yet Michaels would also stage an astonishing comeback in the months that followed. His unofficial rebound tour started with an emotional win on the live Apprentice finale, just days after his mini-stroke; continued with a triumphant American Idol performance; and has persisted with sold-out gigs across the nation—not to mention filming his new VH1 reality show, Bret Michaels: Life as I Know It, which documents both the professional and the personal, on the road and at home in Arizona with his girlfriend, Kristi Gibson, and their daughters, Raine, 10, and Jorja, 5. In November, he became the American Diabetes Association's "Face of Diabetes" for American Diabetes Month, continuing to speak out for people with the disease and to raise awareness of its terrible toll.

This is Bret Michaels, and this is the inside story, in his own words, of just what happened in all those hospital rooms, what he did when things hit rock bottom—and how his diabetes, paradoxically, helped him pull through.

April 11, 2010
Rushed to the Hospital

At a tour stop in San Antonio, Michaels woke up with what he thought was stomach flu. Despite every effort to play the gig, he had to be rushed to the hospital. The diagnosis: acute appendicitis. The surgery went fine, but afterward, his blood glucose began to spiral out of control.

Things went crazy with my diabetes, no doubt, not only because of all the stress, mentally and physically. I'd have one bite of sugar-free Jell-O, check my blood sugar, and I'm at 280 [mg/dl]—no way I should be this high. Plus, the hospital scaling, how they [dose] insulin, was much different than how I scale it, and it was making my blood sugars range in the upper 200s or 300s. I don't mind the occasional high blood sugar, but I don't think I want to be running at 300 or 400.

So I literally wrote down, on a legal form, "I will take my own injections," to release the hospital from any liability. I just knew I needed to take responsibility for whatever was going on with my blood sugar, and I finally got it down, with enough insulin, to the 140, 150 area.

April 21, 2010
The "Thunderclap"

Released from the hospital, Michaels went home to his Arizona ranch to recuperate, taking it easy and spending time with his family. He was just starting to feel better when the next crisis hit.

I was home on the couch watching TV one night and, literally, my brain exploded. There was an explosion in the back of my head that sounded like a loud bang. They call it the "thunderclap": You actually hear the sound of the hemorrhage inside your body.

One good thing about being diabetic is that I'm very aware of my body, and I knew instantly that I was in trouble. I thought someone had either just broken into my house and shot me in the back of my head, or that I'd had an aneurysm.

When I get hurt, I get a massive adrenaline rush and get really calm; this weird feeling comes over me where I accept that I'm in trouble and talk myself off the ledge. That comes from the lifelong training of being diabetic, those diabetic highs and lows. I have been out on my Harley by myself in the mountains—I like to cruise and forget everything, with the trees and life zooming around me—and felt that first tingle of low blood sugar. I know I have stuff with me, but by the time I get over to the side of the road and check, I'm down to 30 or 40. But I stay really calm. I just sit there on my bike and take some sugar pills and wait. [The calm] is from years of training myself.

And so, in agony from the hemorrhage, Michaels was nevertheless composed enough to wake his girlfriend, who took one look at him, heard his slurred speech, and rushed him to the nearest emergency room.

It was the worst pain I've ever felt—it's like an elephant kicking the inside of your skull out. When we got to the hospital, I didn't want to get out of the car. They put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me in, and I remember saying, "Just give me something, anything, morphine, please." But the [orderly] said, "I can't do that—we need to know what's wrong first," and kept asking if I did drugs. Now, I don't do drugs, that's not my thing, but they do see a lot of incidence of this [type of hemorrhage] with people who use amphetamines, crack cocaine, meth. I said, "No, no, no," and told him about the loud clap inside my head, like a gunshot.

So they wheeled me down to get a CAT scan, and that's when things got blurry and life became surreal. It went from two people working with me to eight or nine. They're strapping me down, looking at X-rays, talking about a brain bleed—and now they're on the phone with [the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix] and then a guy asks Kristi, "Do you have children? Because if I had kids and I was in his condition, I would bring them to the hospital."

I'm overhearing this, and everything is slowing. People are handing me stuff to sign so I don't hold the hospital liable, my last will and testament. At some point, I grabbed a doctor by the hand and said, "Look at me: I'm asking you right now, am I dying?" And he goes, "I'm not going to say you're dying, but it's not good. You're in a lot of trouble."

All I could think about was Kristi and my daughters. I didn't get angry, remorseful, or regretful; I got sad. I thought, "This is going to be it." I wasn't onstage with pyro[technics] or in a big gun battle—this was not a big rock-star way to go out. [Laughs.] I was just watching TV on my couch after an emergency appendectomy, and literally my brain exploded, and that made me sad. But I never give up on life, and I wasn't giving up then. I was in the hands of God and a good medical team, at that point, and hoped they would let me survive.

Michaels was transported to Barrow and eventually learned that he hadn't had an aneurysm, as he'd originally feared, but a subarachnoid hemorrhage: sudden bleeding in the fluid-filled spaces around the base of the brain.

After three days I could finally comprehend what a subarachnoid hemorrhage was and that my vein had exploded, and they showed me where the blood [in my brain] was, and said "we're keeping an eye on it." They also said that the first chance of survival is 50-50, and now there's a three-to-five-day period where the bleed has got to stop or else they go in and operate. The amount of MRIs and MRAs [two different kinds of medical scans] they did, I can't even count. They were also massaging my leg for blood clots, because they were concerned about a blood clot from the appendectomy. There was a whole series of things that could be wrong. It was a mess.

I spent the next 10 days in ICU, and then four more in occupational therapy, practicing walking, talking, getting everything working again. And all I kept saying to everybody around me was, "I don't want anyone to know that this happened." Being a diabetic, I'm already a risk factor for promoters. Now I've had this appendectomy and a hemorrhage—I didn't want anyone to know. But little do I know that there's a huge media frenzy, that people are becoming very curious as to what happened, and that the news media are outside the hospital, outside my house.

His brain stopped bleeding, and his neurological situation stabilized. But Michaels's problems with his blood glucose persisted.

It was a real struggle with my diabetes. I had severe highs and lows; mostly highs, because of my stress level but also because I had no exercise. It was the same thing [as with my appendectomy]: I had signed off with the hospital to administer my own insulin, at the amount I felt necessary to get into the 120s or 130s.

Eventually, I got my blood sugar under control. My doctor [neurosurgeon Joseph Zabramski] said to me, "I've never seen anyone as driven as you to get back on your feet." I [was still healing from the appendectomy], and now I got to where I was having chemical meningitis from the bleed—I couldn't move my hand, my legs felt weird—but I would make them get me up and let me walk 15 or 20 feet, and the next day 25. I was going insane sitting there, and [the doctors] weren't really happy about [letting me walk around], but they were glad to see my determination.

May 16, 2010
The Warning Stroke

After several weeks of pain and hard work at occupational therapy, Michaels left the hospital and returned home, again, to recuperate with his family. Per doctor's orders, he was walking in his pool for exercise, when fate struck once more.

While I'm swimming I completely forget that I'm sick. Life is really good, the girls are swimming with me, Kristi is watching us, and I pick Jorja up and kind of toss her, and the minute I did it, instantly, my mouth, left hand and arm, and left leg went numb. I felt like I was shot with Novocain, and I thought, "Holy crap, what was that?" I went back to the same ER, and at this point they give me an MRI and an MRA. They can't see a rebleed, but they keep me overnight doing a ton of tests and, finally, the last test they give me is an ultrasound air bubble test, which showed I had a hole in my heart.

Now I'm a guy who fight, fight, fights, but that one took the wind out of my sails. I just thought, "You have got to be kidding me." My balloon just deflated. Normally I deal with pain by laughing at a lot of it, but this one depressed me.

Dr. Z came back and looked at me and said, "Bret, I know that one hurt." And I said, "Yeah, what's going on here?" And he said, "It's just a domino effect of stuff, but the good news is, we found it and it can be dealt with," which was the only ray of light.

May 19, 2010
The Comeback Begins

Michaels went on aspirin therapy and a blood thinner. Surgery was scheduled for the end of January to correct the hole in his heart, a not uncommon defect known as a patent foramen ovale. With his health finally stable enough, he returned to the public eye, with the requisite post-crisis appearance on Oprah, the Celebrity Apprentice win, and a victory lap on American Idol.

I didn't decide to make a comeback. Everything I was supposed to do was already planned—like The Apprentice, that had been scheduled for months. I already knew I was a finalist—I just couldn't tell anybody. I knew I was doing American Idol. I knew when the tour would restart. It was all already planned; it was just matter of whether I could make it or not.

Physically, I knew I was exhausted—I knew I wasn't feeling anywhere near where I wanted to feel. I pride myself on getting up and working out every day, and I don't mean work out like I'm going to win a bodybuilding contest. I kickbox a little, ride my bike, life some weights, maybe get out of the bus at a truck stop and throw the football. And I just started to feel really, really anxious because I knew wasn't going to be able to work out the way I wanted to for a long time. My chances for making a full recovery were getting slimmer and slimmer, and that started to weigh on my mind.

So what I did, when I got back from the hospital, was I went out on my property and took a walk and got straight with God and with myself. I said, "Listen, I'm going to make every effort to get better, just give me a chance." That was it. I just mentally got myself positive, and that is exactly what helped me get through it—saying, "I'm going to be able to lift my daughter and swim with my kids again, I'm going to play guitar again, I'm going to go back on Celebrity Apprentice and win it, dammit!" I went back in and started setting goals, like "I am going to go to American Idol even if I can only do half a song," and "I am going to go back on tour and set dates," because it takes as much energy to go positive as it does to go negative, and I would much rather drive myself positive.

September 28, 2010
On the Road Again

After conferring with his doctors about how to best manage his health in general and his diabetes in particular, Michaels resumed his tour at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Biloxi, Miss. By September he was in Maryland, and then Indiana, Washington, Wisconsin, Florida, and New York, among other stops. Pulling into La Crosse, Wis., in his tricked-out tour bus, Michaels took some time out before a sold-out concert to reflect on his roller coaster of a year (while multitasking his exercise regimen by alternately riding a stationary bike and lifting hand weights).

I'm almost back to where I want to be. Everything is in increments, because I feel like I have been in good control but not great control. [My A1C] is running in the mid to high 7s—my blood sugar is varying a little more than I would like it to—and part of the challenge now is to get back into the 6s.

I am definitely not 100 percent yet. But when I get the heart operation over with, when that hole is shut, I think I'm going to feel so much better. Because when I think back, I think I've actually had several [warning strokes] throughout the last few years, I just didn't know what they were. So after this operation, I think I'm going to feel maybe the best I've ever felt in my life. Maybe all this time I've never known I can feel better than this!

Here's where touring is different for me: I absolutely have an itinerary of where the really good hospitals are, just in case I have another hemorrhage or heart problems. I am really focused on what to do if something happens to us, not just me, but my band and my crew. But the shows I am playing are as fun and as wild and as upbeat as ever. Everything else is life as usual, on the road.

At the moment, Michaels's health is stable and he's looking forward, after his upcoming surgery, to moving full-steam ahead in his career: working on a new rock-country album that will reflect some of his recent highs and lows; celebrating the release of his autobiography, Roses & Thorns, in March 2011; mounting a 25th-anniversary tour with Poison next summer; and, of course, developing yet another reality show or two. Through it all, he's proud of the way he's managed his diabetes. Michaels has been outspoken about his condition for much of his career, raising awareness of diabetes as well as raising money for research. He constantly meets with other people who have diabetes, sharing his experience, advice, and even, on occasion, his personal cell phone number. He holds auctions of memorabilia and meet-and-greets after each of his concerts, with the proceeds going directly to help send kids to diabetes camps. He's also done a lot for people with diabetes purely through the example of his astounding success as an entertainer with type 1.

My parents never let me feel defeated or different—they always inspired me and told me "you're going to have to work a lot harder to get half as far." So rather than bitch or complain about [diabetes], I just accepted it and said, "I'm still going to play music—now how do I do it?" [or] "OK, I want to ride my dirt bike in this race," or play football, or go camping. These are things that everyone else can just get up and go do, but for me I've got to plan ahead—I've got to make sure I pack glucose, insulin, a cooler to keep it cold. There's a whole challenge involved, but I like to rise to that challenge. I am extremely thankful, at 24 years into my career, that I am living my dream. And it's everything I wanted it to be—but nothing like I thought it would be when I was a kid. It takes an extreme amount of work, but the harder I work, the luckier I get: That's just the way it is for me. I've accepted that's just the way I'm built—to be given challenges and try to overcome them—and it's also what keeps me fighting.

This is Bret Michaels, and this is why he is a survivor.

A Checkup With Dr. Z

Bret's brain surgeon talks about the rocker's health crisis.



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