Editor’s Note: Each week in the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week we bring you Leon Harris’ story. For the past two decades, Harris has been bringing the news to viewers – first here on CNN and for the past 10 years, on our Washington affiliate WJLA. On August 1, he was suddenly not on the air.
On August 1, Leon Harris felt terrible pain
Doctors told him he had a condition called necrotizing pancreatitis
Harris recovered and some are calling it miraculous
WJLA anchorman Leon Harris remembers that when the pain began on August 1, it came out of the blue.
“I woke up that Thursday morning prepared to go to the gym and then go to work and have a regular day,” he said. “But I had this incredible, sudden pain in my stomach that was something that I have never felt before in my life. It felt like a horse had kicked me.”
He admits that wasn’t enough to move him to seek help, though he says the pain was worse than other injuries and illnesses. He has had broken bones, surgeries, popped tendons, fallen off a truck, and driven himself to the hospital with severe appendicitis. “I’ve actually been run over by a truck – none of that compared to what I felt in my stomach at that time.
“I’m going through pain unlike any pain I have ever felt in my life and it literally knocked me to the floor and you know, being a stupid guy, a regular guy, I did what most guys do. I said: You know let me just take some Pepto Bismol, let me pop a couple of Gas-X pills, that’ll take care of it, it’s just gas.”
An hour later, his wife, Dawn, who had recently graduated from nursing school, found him writhing in pain on the floor. She immediately got him to a local hospital.
Harris credits her for saving his life. He says unequivocally, if she hadn’t come upstairs when she did, he wouldn’t still be here.
He thought he would just spend the night in he hospital and be back to normal the next day. But about 4 o’clock that morning things got serious.
“All of a sudden, the door opened, these guys came rushing in the room saying we’ve gotta to go to intensive care immediately … and I was sort of in a fog, not on any drugs at the time except for pain meds. I found out later it was because they said my kidneys were shutting down and my lungs were beginning to fill up with fluid.
“They called my wife and said you need to get here immediately because we need to intubate him – to put me on a ventilator and they needed her to sign off on it.”
When Dawn arrived, he remembers she asked him where his phone charger was. At that moment, he says, his eyes rolled back up in his head and he passed out. “I was pretty much out from that moment for the next nine days.”
So, within 36 hours of that initial “kick” in the stomach, Harris was being life-flighted to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. “For you to be life-flighted you’ve got to be in pretty bad shape,” he says.
Harris got a diagnosis of necrotizing pancreatitis.
“My pancreas basically decided to start dying and taking my kidneys, my lungs and other internal organs along with it.” He says his doctors described his gut as looking like “a bomb had gone off inside me.” He adds, “you don’t get symptoms until it’s already happening and if you don’t get that process stopped quickly enough it can be fatal, and that’s what was so dangerous about the situation I was in.”
In order to allow his pancreas to heal, Harris says he wasn’t allowed to have anything in his mouth for 17 days, relying on feeding tubes for nourishment and a tube down his windpipe to breathe.
The main causes of pancreatitis are gallbladder disease and alcohol consumption. Harris has a family history of gallbladder disease.
While the specific cause for him is unknown, Harris knows this type of infection can be fatal and he says he came close to dying a couple of times.
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“My heart stopped and they actually had to revive me … at one point they were trying to replace the tube into my windpipe. I flat-lined. They were able to get me revived and the same thing happened the very next day. I had the tubes going down into my windpipe and I just knew that I couldn’t breathe. That was the absolute worst part of the whole thing. The pain in my stomach, fine – that felt like someone had just taken a knife and cut my entire insides out. That hurt. That was nothing compared to not being able to breathe. That sensation of not being able to breathe, it was just like trying to go run a marathon breathing thru a cocktail straw.”
He was so uncomfortable, he tried to pull one of the tubes out.
“I punched people, I kicked people. At one point it took 10 people to keep me on the table.” He was restrained, his hands and feet tied down for his own protection. He says hospital staff nicknamed him the beast.
Eventually that fight began to take a toll.
“August 9, I just got exhausted and I said I give up, I can’t fight this anymore, what’s the sense of fighting, and just decided OK, fine, this is God’s way of telling me, ‘OK buddy this is it’ and so that night I begged them to let me die.”
But when he closed his eyes, Harris says he saw his wife’s face.
“That’s when I said I can’t quit. If I quit I’m gonna go to hell and I’m not gonna go to hell for quitting. If I go to hell it’s gonna be for something else, it won’t be for quitting.”
Harris recovered and some are calling it miraculous.
“If there is such a thing as a miracle, the night of August 9 is when it happened. I begged to die and by August 10 I had a miracle,” he said.
He has an even bigger appreciation for his wife and two children and the friends and family who stood by him during this ordeal.
He also has some advice for other men who may be ignoring what their body is telling them.
“Don’t wait until you have as close a brush with leaving this Earth as I did before you decide that you’re worth going to see a doctor. … Don’t say ‘Eh, I don’t need to go see a doctor’ –yeah you do!”
Harris continues to recuperate and is back at work. He returned to the anchor desk on September 9.