A Brush With Deathâ
Newtown Native To Share âWhat I Learnedâ
By Nancy K. Crevier
Despite the title, What I Learned When I Almost Died, âThis is not the kind of book to pick up if you want to change your life,â said Newtown native and author Chris Licht.
Mr Licht will be at the C.H. Booth Library June 1 to share the story of his flirtation with death, just one year ago, that has resulted in a 165-page book, to be published by Simon & Shuster, May 24.
Chris Licht grew up in Newtown, the son of Dr Peter Licht and Susan Licht, a physicianâs associate. From the time he was very young, he pushed himself to explore his passions â mainly that of news broadcasting â and that drive has ultimately put Mr Licht in the enviable position as executive director of the successful MSNBC early morning program Morning Joe, since 2007.
Typically, prior to April 28, 2010, the Manhattan executiveâs life consisted of âdays that were filled with the pressure and crises of running a national cable television program [that] had little room for casual nicety,â he admits in the forward of his book. âThe show so consumed me that it couldnât be merely acceptable. It had to be great. I had ambitions. I had to be the killer producer,â he wrote.
What happened to him that day showed the adrenaline-charged producer that there is more to life than being in control, and that there are things in life that simply cannot be controlled.
Cerebral aneurysms are balloonlike bulges in the walls of arteries in the brain, Mr Licht explains in his book. If an aneurysm ruptures â something that happens to someone about 27,000 times a year in the United States â blood cannot escape. Pressure builds, spasms occur, and tissues are squeezed against bone. Fifteen percent of those ruptures result in death before the patient ever reaches the hospital, and 25 percent die later. Survivors are generally permanently disabled.
Mr Licht did not know any of this when he slipped into the car waiting for him outside of NBCâs Washington, DC, bureau, where that dayâs show had been filmed, heading back to his hotel. âThe man who would become my neurosurgeon doubts that a brain can make a noise,â Mr Licht wrote. But as he prepared to hammer home a point via his BlackBerry, he heard a âpopâ in his head followed by a strange sensation of movement in his brain. This was swiftly followed by a sadistically painful headache.
Up until that moment, Mr Licht, not yet 40 years old, was a perfectly strong adult with no notable health issues, no addictions, and no vices. He was not prone to illness and headaches were definitely not the norm for him. He called his parents.
âIt really wasnât like him to be calling at all,â said Susan Licht. âHe has been completely healthy his whole life,â she said, so she was surprised to get a call midmorning, at her home, from her grown son. What he described concerned her, but without wanting to alarm him, she gently suggested he get to a hospital.
When his father called, shortly thereafter, his suggestion was not so gentle. Go, go now, he said, and get a CAT scan. âIâm telling you that when you get there, you need to tell them you do not get headaches and this is the worst headache of your life,â he firmly told his son. That sentence, code to emergency room staff, received the right attention when Mr Licht staggered into the George Washington University Hospital, head cradled in his hands.
âWe deal with this all of the time in our practice, so it helps to know what to do and say,â said Dr Licht. Even realizing that their son was in good hands, the Lichts headed to Washington, D.C., where Dr Licht was able to advocate for his son from a professional standpoint. Plus, both Lichts knew the comfort patients gain from having loved ones nearby. They, along with Chrisâs wife, Jenny, and work colleagues stood by as the long day progressed, and continued to be there for him as he recovered.
âThis was a novel experience for Chris, so in some respects, he was like a kid going through any new experience,â Dr Licht recalled. Love knows no age. Leaving his sonâs room that night, he was moved to plant a kiss on his head. âAll of a sudden, you see this kid, with all of this going on, and the comfort of family leaving. I had to comfort him,â he said.
Test upon test, CAT scans, and many other uncomfortable proddings by the areaâs best neurosurgeon, Dr Vivat Deshmukh, left the specialist and colleagues with no definitive answer as the days unfolded, other than that Chris Licht had most likely survived a subarachnoid hemorrhage, an event from which only in extremely rare instances does one recover unscathed.
Mr Licht credits his complete recovery to simple luck, and having no underlying health problems. Twenty-six days after Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski intervened to have brain aneurysm survivor Vice President Joe Biden call Dr Deshmukh and get the ball rolling for their colleague, Mr Licht returned to work.
By then, he had already begun to process what he felt was an amazing outreach by friends, co-workers, and people he barely knew, and to forgive his body for turning on him so unexpectedly. Knowing that there are far worse things than how much he is or is not liked, whether every aspect of the show is perfect, and how unimportant it is to get caught up in situations that threaten to go âover the topâ raises the bar âto what you are concerned about,â said Mr Licht. His work has not suffered from his letting go. He is able to more fully enjoy his job, as a matter of fact, he said, and is still fairly entwined with his BlackBerry. Life still has many, many stressful moments.
But he has found he is now willing to live more fully in the moment, appreciate quiet times with his wife and two small children, and has drawn closer to his parents, especially his father. There were many emotional moments during his initial attack and subsequent recovery, with kind words spoken that may not have been under other circumstances. That has affected him.
âI may not actually say âI love youâ or âI care,â but certainly through reaching out to people, spending time with them, I am having interactions with as many people as I can,â Mr Licht said.
âIt was a harrowing experience,â said Susan Licht, âbut even though he still give his all to his job and manages to fit a lot in to his life, I do think he does stop to smell the roses more.â
His overall outlook is great, said his father, with little concern of a recurrence. âHe had so many procedures, that in a way he knows more [about his brain health] than most of us,â Dr Licht said. âHe knows, too, that you donât take good health for granted.â
Everyone had questions for him when he returned to work, said Chris Licht, so when his friend and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham heard the story and urged him to write it down, he did so. Writing the book has helped him examine the event and how he reacted to it, he said. âIf this book can help people, itâs great,â said Mr Licht.
Chris Licht will be at the C.H. Booth Library, Wednesday, June 1, at 7 pm. Copies of What I Learned When I Almost Died will be available for purchase, and Mr Licht will be signing books. For more information, call the library at 203-426-4533.