Chronic pain no laughing matter for Lewis
By Kat Carney
(CNN) -- For decades, Jerry Lewis wowed audiences with his unique brand of physical comedy in movies such as "The Ladies' Man" and "The Nutty Professor."
But behind the gags, the funnyman was hiding a secret that was no laughing matter. "Everything and anything I ever did for 37 years had the kind of pain under it that would kill most people."
Lewis, 77, said the years of pratfalls in films and onstage severely damaged his spine.
For relief, he said he relied on heavy doses of pain medication and sought advice of medical experts from around the world.
"I spent a half-million dollars just traveling, doing, trying [and] bringing doctors to me," Lewis said.
But nothing helped. Even though the physical nature of his comedy continued to take a heavy toll on his body, Lewis said, performing also offered some welcome relief. "When I was onstage doing the work, adrenaline killed the pain because I never hurt in front of an audience," he said.
But the relief was short-lived. "When the curtain comes down, I need two stage hands to walk me to the dressing room that was only 50 feet away," he said. "So without the adrenaline, the pain got very severe."
Lewis said the pain was "so severe that I took a 9mm Beretta, put it on the counter. The pain was so bad I couldn't see."
Lewis said he was on the verge of suicide, but a last-minute call to his doctor saved his life. "He said, 'Listen, can you wait an hour before you blow your head off?' I said, 'Yes.' "
Lewis said that doctors rushed to his bedside and told him they wanted to attach a temporary neurostimulator to his back. The device generates a tiny electric current that blocks a nerve's ability to transmit pain.
For Lewis, the result was nothing short of a miracle. "I got up, and bang I was skipping all over the master bedroom."
Five days later, Lewis had a permanent stimulator implanted. "That was April 20 [last year], that was the last day I had pain."
Today, he carries a handheld device, which controls the amount of neural stimulation he needs for pain relief. Lewis later became a paid spokesman for the company that manufactures his implanted device.
The comedian also suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, an illness in which the lungs' air sacs are gradually replaced by scar tissue. To be able to breathe easier, he takes the steroid prednisone, which has given him a bloated appearance.
Lewis said there are things he can do now that he was unable to do when he was in pain, such as pick up his daughter, who is 11.
"She'll run to me, and I'll catch her and hold her up, one hand on the belly and one on her ankle. I've got her secure -- I learned that from Michael Jackson. When the pain got so severe, I couldn't do that."