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Leon Harris survives life-threatening illness

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Leon Harris thought August 1 would be an ordinary day.

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After getting up, he planned to walk his dog four miles and then hit the gym for a couple hours before heading to work. But when he tried to get out of bed, Leon knew something was very wrong.

“My foot hit the floor when I got out of bed and boom! I hit the deck,” Harris, 52, says. “I mean I had this pain in my stomach I think the most intense pain I've ever felt.”

His wife Dawn says he suggested that they go to the hospital.

“I said, ‘Let’s go,’” Dawn says.

At Suburban Hospital, doctors ran tests and discovered Harris' pancreas was inflamed.

“They said you have a bad case of pancreatitis -- this is how we treat pancreatitis -- nothing by mouth, IV fluids, nothing by mouth and pain medication,” Dawn says.

He was admitted. But overnight, he went downhill rapidly.

“My pancreas began to digest itself inside my body which caused this buildup of toxins, fluids, gases, reactions with internal organs - which is why my kidneys started shutting down and my fluid built up in my lungs,” Harris, says.

He was airlifted to Johns Hopkins in critical condition.

Dr. David Efron, chief of acute surgery, says Leon had necrotizing pancreatitis, where enzymes in his pancreas began attacking and killing the organ itself.

“When you look at his CAT scan, it literally looks like a bomb has gone off in his pancreatic bed,” he describes.

The enzymes destroyed half of Leon’s pancreas, which began impacting his other organs. His kidneys started to shut down, his lungs filled with fluid, and his heart stopped – twice.

According to the doctor, the two major causes of pancreatitis in the U.S. today is gallstone disease and exposure to alcohol. Though Leon only drank socially, he has a family history of gallbladder disease.

He has made the decision to have his gallbladder taken out this December.

Though pancreatitis isn’t uncommon, the doctor says that Leon’s recovery is: "What's striking to me is he did so well -- because patients with this severity of pancreatitis, it's not uncommon for them to be in the hospital for several months," he says.

Dawn had just passed her registered nursing boards in July.

“I said, ‘I guess he's going to be my first patient.’ He's like, yeah he is,” she says. “He's going to need your strength, he's going to really need you,” Dawn says. What he's about to go through is really, really bad.”

She says it was awful watching him struggle for air during his nine days in critical condition at Johns Hopkins, drifting in and out of consciousness.

The feeding tube and ventilator keeping him alive made him feel like he was drowning.

“It was literally like trying to snorkel across a lake using a cocktail straw,” he says.

Delirious, Harris tried to pull out the tubes. He was put in restraints, but kept breaking free. the nurses nicknamed him "the grizzly bear."

“And one nurse Pat said, ‘whatever you do, don't poke the bear!’ Harris jokes.

When Leon's heart stopped, he thought it was the end.

“I just remember thinking God okay I think I've been a good guy, been good to people, I think I've done something else for somebody else every day of my life so far,” he says.

But then he saw his wife Dawn.

“I was like, you can kill me, I want to die, I want to die,” Harris says. “And I closed my eyes for a second and I happened to see this woman's face - and she was grinning and wearing that green top she had on day two and I just said, ‘I can't quit on them. If I quit on her and go to Hell for that, that's not worth it. I'm not going to go to hell for quitting on her.”

Eventually, Harris passed out. The next morning, he woke up in the hospital room and didn’t know if he was dead or alive.”

That's when Harris suddenly turned the corner.

Doctors had stopped the attack on his pancreas and he began breathing on his own again.

“That was the first time I realized I was going to live,” he says.

He started growing stronger every day and after nearly a month in the hospital, Leon returned home, 18 pounds lighter, but alive.

Dr. Efron says that Leon’s workout regimen of cardio and weightlifting six days a week probably saved his life. To prevent this from happening again, Leon is on blood thinners for several months, and has to reduce fat intake as well as cut out alcohol for the rest of his life.

"If you're telling me I have to watch the Mets kicking the Nats butts drinking Sprite, then I'll do it -- I'm not going to go back to not being able to breathe," says Harris.

“You're stuck with me now,” he continues. “God kicked my ass back twice -- you're stuck with me.”

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