Leon Harris returns to work after suffering life-threatening illness

Leon greeted fellow ABC7 staffers in the newsroom on Thursday. Photo: Justin Karp

ARLINGTON, Va. (WJLA) - August 1 began far from normal for WJLA anchor Leon Harris. He woke up but couldn't follow his normal routine of taking his dog for a walk, going to the gym and heading to work. He was feeling an acute pain in his stomach and even vomited several times.

The pain became so bad that he could barely move. His wife Dawn found him curled into a fetal position in their Potomac, Md. house. After dressing him, Dawn rushed him to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

The stomach ache Harris felt that August day was soon diagnosed as a life-threatening case of necrotizing pancreatitis, or a severe inflammation of the pancreas. The health crisis put Harris in the intensive care unit for almost two weeks, led to partial kidney failure and even caused his heart to stop beating on two separate occasions.

"I feel like I got a second chance," says Harris, 52, who hasn't appeared on-air in more than a month. He's set to return to WJLA on Monday, Sept. 9.

A health crisis

After he was admitted to Suburban Hospital, doctors checked him out but didn't yet know precisely what was wrong with him. So they decided to keep him in the hospital for a few days to observe him.

But by 4 a.m. the next day, Harris' health had deteriorated dramatically. His kidneys were shutting down and his lungs were filling with liquid. Harris says much of this was a blur. He remembers being told that he needed to be rushed to the intensive care unit but says he blacked out.

"As far as I knew, they were doing precautions," he says.

He was airlifted to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where he was was placed on a ventilator and had several tubes placed past his vocal chords into his lungs. But Harris says he couldn't stand the tubes and reflexively tried to tear them out. He was then given drugs to help calm him down and was placed in restraints. Harris, who weighs 230 pounds, is 6-foot-1 and works out every day, broke free of three of the restraints, earning him the nickname "Bear" from the hospital staff.

He says he fought against the tubes because they made his breathing so difficult that he felt like he was drowning.

"It was like trying to snorkel across the Potomac with a cocktail straw," he says, adding that he was eventually placed on an anti-psychotic drug to keep him from pulling out the tubes.

The next week was like a blur to Harris. He was in and out of consciousness. He would blink and see his family from his hometown of Akron, Ohio at his bedside. He would blink again and see his friends from Atlanta, where he spent 20 years working for CNN.

The pain, however, was unrelenting. His stomach was so swollen that he looked eight months pregnant. His hands looked like catcher's mitts. His heart stopped beating on two separate instances and he needed to be revived.{ }

By the following Thursday, Aug. 8, he asked if he was going to die. And the next day, Harris says he simply lost the will to live and resigned himself to death.

"If I’m going to die, I’m going to die," he recalls thinking. But he also remembers thinking about his wife Dawn and not wanting to succumb.

"If I go to Hell, it's not because I quit," he says.

A long recovery

He woke up later not knowing if he was alive or dead. He was put through several tests and it was learned that his lungs were clearing up. The tubes were pulled from his mouth and Harris says that's when he knew he was going to make it.

He says when he first tried to walk, he didn't recognize his legs because they were so skinny. Harris was also shocked when he was told he'd been in the hospital for almost two weeks.

"It was like a scene out of a movie," he says. "I was like, 'you’re kidding me.' I had no idea."

His doctors eventually told him it was as if a bomb had gone off in his pancreas. A recent CAT scan shows that half his pancreas is essentially dead, and in December, Harris will undergo surgery to have his gall bladder removed because of the necrotizing pancreatitis.

Despite it all, he considers himself more than lucky. Harris credits his wife, a nurse, for helping to get him through the difficult time. She consulted with doctors, fielded calls and helped arrange gut-wrenching tasks like arranging for wills and an end-of-life directive.

"No matter what I was going through physically, she was going through as much emotionally," he says.

Harris is still recovering from the incident. He left the hospital weighing 215 pounds. He recalls that when he recently tried to walk his dog, he fell to one knee in exhaustion. He still feels weak and isn't up to his full gym work out.

But he's still thankful to be alive.

“It was a heckuva an August.” he says.