ABC News’ Mary Pflum reports:
For more than 20 years, anchor Leon Harris has brought the news to the public.
On the morning of Aug. 1, Harris, a longtime anchor at WJLA-TV, an ABC News affiliate in Washington, D.C., made news when he collapsed in excruciating abdominal pain.
“It was the worst thing … I’ve ever felt in my life,” Harris said in an interview with “Good Morning America.”
Harris, 52, was airlifted from a local hospital to Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Md., where doctors diagnosed him with acute necrotizing pancreatitis. Harris’ pancreas was inflamed and beginning to die. His kidneys were starting to fail and his lungs had filled with fluid.
Harris’ illness was life-threatening. Dr. David Efron, head of trauma at the hospital, described the findings of Harris’ CT scan.
“It literally looked as if a bomb had gone off … where the pancreas resides,” Efron said.
Harris was placed on a ventilator to help him breathe, and for nine days, he drifted in and out of consciousness.
His wife, Dawn, said a doctor prepared her and their children, a daughter and a son, for the worst.
“He just said, ‘You know, people die from this.’ And when he said that I lost it. I just completely lost it,” she said.
Harris himself said he almost didn’t make it.
“On two different days I died,” he said. “I zeroed out and they revived me … I got sick and tired of trying to breathe.”
Harris, who described being on the ventilator as “trying to snorkel across a lake breathing through a cocktail straw,” said he was ready to die.
“And I closed my eyes and I happened to see Dawn’s face … And I said, ‘I can’t quit on her. If I quit on her, I’m going to go to hell, and if I go to hell, I’m not going to go to hell for quitting,’” he recalled.
Then, just as suddenly as it came on, the pancreatitis subsided.
It’s still a mystery as to how Harris developed the pancreatitis, especially since he didn’t drink much alcohol and worked out regularly, which tend to keep this condition at bay. Doctors said his illness could have been related to a family history of gallbladder problems.
Warning signs of the condition are similar to food poisoning, which is why acute cases such as Harris’ often go undiagnosed until they are severe.
Harris is now back at home. He has one-half of a pancreas left, but it’s functioning well. And tonight, for the first time since his illness, Harris will return to the WJLA anchor desk for the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.
“If I die twice on the table and I’m still here … God kicked my butt out of Heaven twice, so I’m supposed to be here,” Harris said, laughing. “I can’t quit.”