Love this photo down below. Chris and Monte doing “play-by-play” while I play ping pong all day for refugee resettlement in Northampton. Always thought he’d outlive us all. He was a tough old bird who kept getting up off the canvas again and again. To wit: here’s a front page column from his near-death of 11 years ago. Love the way he talks about Barbara, his hero, and the Technicolor dreams he had while comatose. Give ’em hell up there, old friend.
2011 Daily Hampshire Gazette by Bob Flaherty
TURNERS FALLS – “Look, I’m not dead,” said Chris Collins from his home Tuesday, as he sought to dispel rumors that suggested that very thing. “I’m also not brain-dead, blind, or any of the other things people have heard.”
Of course, Collins, 43, who had been WHMP’s news and program director since 2001 before his major organs shut down, was at death’s door all summer and not expected to pull through. All of it brought on, he said, by a decade of burning candles at both ends and playing “fast and loose with Type 2 diabetes for years. I was riding for a fall.”
He also strongly relates to the tail-end of “The Sopranos'” run, where Mob boss Tony, in a coma after being shot by his uncle, goes into this altered state as a harried heating salesman from Arizona, Kevin Finnerty. Collins can tell you about comas.
And talk about a shell of one’s former self. In the last six months, between kidney failure, a three-week coma and open heart surgery, Collins has involuntarily shed 116 pounds, which puts him roughly at his 1986 fighting weight of 212, when he was the goalie for Greenfield High’s hockey team. Not that he’s in any shape to start lacing ’em up and taking his place between the pipes. But he’s alive. Which may be some sort of a modern miracle in itself. “My nurses couldn’t believe I was alive,” he said.
Collins’ ordeal began in late March, with intense pain in his back. Since he had been rushed to the hospital 21/2 years before with what turned out to be kidney stones, he thought he was in for more of the same. But this time it proved to be a blocked right ureter, which led to a kidney infection. “My kidneys basically stopped functioning,” he said. “It came out of the blue – I never saw this happening.”
Co-workers at WHMP who saw him taken by ambulance to Cooley Dickinson that morning suspected it was a heart attack.
Renal stents were inserted to allow Collins’ kidneys to function. He was sent home to recuperate, but the drug regimen he was prescribed had adverse affects. “I had (the stents) in for three months,” he said, “but the bloating – I bloated like a mile-high balloon. Couldn’t sleep, could barely walk upstairs; it was obvious that something was wrong. My echocardiogram was high but normal, but my symptoms were not consistent with that,” he said.
An ambulance’s wail could be heard once again in Collins’ ears. “The last thing I remember is being wheeled into the Franklin ER.,” said Collins. The paddles of a defibrillator shocked his heart back to life and again when he was rushed to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. Collins credits cardiologist Mara Slowsky with saving his life. “She saw that my heart was beating at 15 percent capacity. Major blockage. They drained 2 liters of fluid out of my chest.”
He went into a coma – from late July to mid-August he was on extreme life support. “I coded three times and three times they brought me back,” said Collins. “It was hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute.”
Ordeal for family, and patient
But as Collins’ wife Barbara and his sister Carol and his three other siblings and in-laws kept anguished vigil – inside, Chris Collins was on the move, in the shadows, staying one step ahead of hired guns and goons.
“While I was down I had the wildest dreams, another life, really,” he said. “I was in some dive bar on Cape Cod, hooked up with organized crime. Very vivid. People were after me, blew up my houseboat, one guy threatening to kill my family ….”
After three weeks of this he woke up to find his wife crying over him, as he excitedly tried to warn her about the danger she was in. “Watch your back!” he tried to say.
“She said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and cried, ‘I never thought I’d hear your voice again.’ They took the tube out of my throat. Reality came back in. I said, ‘Don’t cry, honey, we’ve still got a lot left to do.'”
He had that right. Cardiac tests found major blockage in three different coronary arteries. “‘You got to have a bypass,’ they said. ‘I’m going to die on that table,’ I said.”
Collins had open heart surgery Aug. 29. In his ravaged state, his chance of surviving the surgery was low. “I was pretty terrified the night before,” he said. “I’m so scared of general anesthesia – it’s given me trouble before.”
The procedure came with vein grafts and led to blood and intestinal infections. But he came out of that one alive, too. “My nurses told me I was practically dancing on the gurney,” he said.
And a sigh of relief came bubbling up from all that family surrounding him. “Coming back from a coma is one thing,” he said, “but to have that support system … it’s always been a tight-knit family but they all circled the wagons. They were all hit hard by this.”
Collins also says that at critical moments, where the course of his care changed by the hour, his wife stood in the middle of that hurricane like a rock.
“I don’t know if there are words to express what she’s done for me,” he said. “My wife took it by the throat and said, ‘I’m in control of his care.’ She was there every day; her love and support are one of the reasons I’m here. I always loved her but didn’t realize how tough she was. I learned a lot about specialists … and trust. My wife was wonderful.”
“It was very scary,” said Barbara Collins. “But I knew I had to be strong for Chris. The situation was precarious – at times he was given 24 to 48 hours to live. Doctors were very up front with me. I had to sign off on so many procedures and they’d explain to me the risks and the benefits. But we’ve been through a lot together – I knew he’d come home.”
The couple, who were high school sweethearts, celebrated nine years of marriage Wednesday. Collins had a dozen roses sent to Barbara’s office at Yankee Candle and a quiet dinner at home was planned.
Collins was released from Baystate Sept. 13. The loss of muscle mass has been dramatic, his endurance at zero. He needs a spotter to shower or climb stairs. “I’m on my ass most of the time,” he said. “My strength is nil. My arms and legs are like sticks. I’m doing cardio exercise once a week to rebuild this new heart.”
He still has a serious problem with fluid retention and must closely monitor his weight. If he should gain 5 pounds over the course of a week, it’s back to the emergency room. The most pain he experiences is in his chest, where bone was sawed right through. Collins, a Greenfield native, had been director of news and programming at WHMP since 2001.
Though he’s on long-term disability, Collins concedes that he’ll likely never return to the rigors of morning radio. “Maybe an afternoon talk show or something, but that’s a long way off,” he said.
WHMP station manager Sean O’Mealy would like to see that happen, too, calling Collins “a vital part of the community, with a great family and a large network of friends.”
“I’ll never be as career-obsessed as I was,” Collins said. “I always thought something was going on with my heart, but kept pushing on. It’s the way I was raised.”
A teenage Collins came home from work one day to find his father dead of a massive heart attack. “That was a life-altering experience, but when you almost punch your ticket three times it definitely gets your attention,” he said.
His vision of life has changed. “I always believed in a higher power, but was kind of a skeptic. But there’s clearly something going on, someone looking out for me, something that willed me back from the dead.”
He plans on writing a book about all this. Its title? “Not Quite Yet,” he said.
“I’m going to do it all better,” he said. “They fixed me; now I’m going to fix myself, rebuilding whatever my body has left.”
“I really believe life is what you make of it, and you get tested. I wasn’t going to go. The will to live outweighed anything else. I have a renewed sense of what life is about. And I’ve got a souvenir in the center of my chest to remind me.”