Bret Michaels reflects on 10th anniversary of near-fatal brain hemorrhage: ‘The pain is like an elephant standing on your skull’

Bret Michaels just released the first volume of this photographic memoir series, Auto-Scrap-Ography, which chronicles the highs and lows of his wild life (which will also soon be the subject of a biopic) — from his lifelong battle with type 1 diabetes, to a near-death experience at the wrong end of a gun at age 16, to his recent star turn as the Banana on The Masked Singer. The latter was certainly one of his zaniest moments, but also a surprisingly serious one. Not only did the Poison frontman choose that particular costume because bananas are one of the best high-energy carbs to bring up a diabetic’s blood sugar, but eerily, his final Masked Singer performance, of Bob Dylan’s mortality ballad “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” coincided with the 10th anniversary of his most famous brush with death.

“I sat down at the piano, and are you ready for this?” he tells Yahoo Entertainment incredulously. “I was playing ‘Knockin on Heaven’s Door’… and 10 years earlier, in 2010. I had my brain hemorrhage — at that exact moment on the West Coast feed. … I didn't realize any of it is lining up. Even coming up to it, I don't ever celebrate the brain hemorrhage. I celebrate surviving the brain hemorrhage. I never even thought about it, and all of a sudden as it was airing, it hit me and Dr. Z and his wife and all of us. I'm like, ‘Everyone's thinks, like, you realized 10 years ago while you're doing “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”!’ It lined up almost to the moment of having the brain hemorrhage.”

Nick Cannon and Bret Michaels in 'The Masked Singer.' (Photo: Fox via Getty Images)
Nick Cannon and Bret Michaels in 'The Masked Singer.' (Photo: Fox via Getty Images)
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Ten years ago, it seemed like Michaels might never walk or talk again, let alone perform onstage with Poison (or in a banana costume). In April 2010, he underwent an emergency appendectomy, and then just few days later, he suffered subarachnoid hemorrhage, followed by a stroke and then an operation to repair a hole in his heart. “All this insanity happened in the course of a couple of months. It was insane — and none of it was really a factor of the diabetes, which was a whole other level,” Michaels, now age 57, recalls. “I'm always grateful, I try to stay positive, but there were some moments, man, when I was getting beat up. I never lost hope, but I was pretty beat up.”

Michaels says he “can't describe in a billion years” how it felt when the hemorrhage happened, but he vividly remembers the moment, when he was watching a baseball game on TV after his then-girlfriend and two daughters had gone to bed and suddenly felt an “incredible explosion” in his brain.

“It's called a Thunderclap, so you can't explain it. It just the weirdest sound. If anyone's never broken a bone and you hear a sound inside your body, when you hear that sound, it was instant and it was instantly I knew something like it. The pain is like an elephant standing on your skull. That's what a brain bleed does. The pressure is what normally kills you eventually. And so I knew I was in trouble and my adrenaline — after years and years of being diabetic through some horrific situations — immediately my adrenaline was on 10. 

“I could barely speak. I knew I'd had some form of a stroke, because my face was drooping and I knew it was bad. I got rushed straight down to the emergency room and they knew instantly and they did the MRI. And then I went from that over to [Phoenix’s Barrow Neurological Institute], and I don't remember for three days. I came back around to a nurse, and they're massaging your legs so you don't get a blood clot. … I never would have thought that was gonna happen. Like, that wouldn't have been on my plate of stuff.” 

Very few people survive a subarachnoid hemorrhage, but miraculously, Michaels was back on his feet within a month and a half — just in time to bravely limp onto the live finale of another reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, and celebrate his Season 3 victory. (In another full-circle moment, his Apprentice castmate was Sharon Osborne, who recognized him right away when she guest-judged Michaels’s final Masked Singer episode this year and heard the first notes of “Knockin on Heaven’s Door.”)

Michaels isn’t quite sure why he was one of the lucky ones, but he theorizes that his experience with diabetes might have had something to do with it. “I know that it's awful to have [diabetes] and it's a bit of a struggle, but I've used it. It's the card I'm dealt, and it's what I use to stay positive. And I think that that helped,” he explains. “The minute I knew I was alive, I came out of the coma, I was working, I was moving. I instantly went, ‘I have no other choice.’ I was going 1,000 percent to try to make a close to full recovery.” 

Michaels also knows that his quick action saved his life: “I got to the brain bleed quickly. If I'd been on tour and I was in the middle of a long stretch of highway and it would have been hours till I got [to a hospital], I probably wouldn't have survived. ... With a lot of people, it's so painful you want to lay down, like you’d want to with a concussion; you want to go to sleep. But I’d never felt nothing like that, and I knew I was in trouble.”

Bret Michaels in 2019. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Bret Michaels in 2019. (Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

It’s unclear if Michaels’s traumatic head injury at the 2009 Tony Awards, when a descending set piece struck him and knocked him unconscious, was directly related to his later health issues. (Michaels did file a lawsuit for unspecified damages against the Tony Awards and CBS claiming there was a connection; in 2012, the parties settled for an undisclosed amount.) But while the Tonys incident went viral on the internet at the time and made Michaels a laughingstock, even he has to admit that it seemed funny at the time. He even describes the backstage chaos as looking like something out of The Masked Singer itself.

“I wake up and I'm looking around for a moment, because it took me out and I'm waking up to the cast of whatever it was, Wicked. So I'm seeing, like, these monkey creatures and I literally thought it was over. I thought, ‘This is it. I'm dead.’ That's what I woke up looking at. … You know, I would have laughed at myself if I was watching it … It’s really funny unless it's you that's getting clobbered in the head! So you just roll with it, and you move on.”

Check out Yahoo Entertainment’s extended interview with Bret Michaels:

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