Talking Your Health For Granted

The following is an article I wrote for Evans Drumheads in 2009 after going through my own health scare. 

When anyone sets out to be a musician, there is one thing that doesn’t really come to the forefront of the thought process…Personal health. Because being a musician is a somewhat taxing physical career and we just barrel through days, weeks and years of gigs, we tend to follow the mentality of “the show must go on.” Think about how many gigs you have played with a cold, flu, a muscle pulled or torn, or even worse. Sometimes your health is as such that the show cannot go on but may have to go on without you. So,what happens when you have spent years playing only to have a health issue come up that is unavoidable and has to be dealt with, even at the cost of having to step away from playing for a bit? This is what happened to me during the back half of 2008.


It all started innocently enough with a day on the lake in early August. In the latter half of the afternoon, we were hanging out with friends from my fiancée, Denay’s,job. We decided to go cliff jumping on one of the islands. Well, I decided to take a jump from the highest point of about 42 feet. Probably not one of the smartest decisions, you know? I jumped,and instead of landing straight in the water(Perpendicular), I landed at a slight angle. This felt like my lower back was slammed against a concrete floor, knocking the wind out of me in the process.


Once I came back to the water’s surface, I knew something was wrong. My back was in very intense pain and my mobility was limited due to that discomfort. I slowly got back to the boat with a little help,and someone pulling me part of the way with their jet ski. Denay and friends helped get me back on the boat and seated, but I knew this was really bad. I got our jet ski back from the friend riding, slowly got it back to the launch, got it on the trailer, towed it back to our house and unhooked the trailer….all while in extreme pain.


I made my way into the house and upstairs to lie down and wait for Denay to get home from where they were parked at the local marina. Every little movement shot pain through my back,and down my legs. I got as comfortable as possible (no easy feat) with 3 pillows to support my lower back. My fiancée got home and had some back and body medicine for me so I took the pills and sat back hoping for my back to have a bit of relief.


That relief did not come in 1, 2, 3 or 4 hours, even with extra medicine. The pain got worse and my body became stiffer, to the point of screaming at almost any movement. With a road trip for two shows with Mark Chesnutt, my main artist gig at the time, coming up the following weekend, I made the choice to call the band leader, Slim Yamaguichi, and try to set up a substitute for those shows dependant on what my doctor’s prognosis was the following day.

I made an appointment with my physician, Dr. Michael Beckham, the next morning to see him that afternoon. He decided it was a severe sprain, put me on some prescription medication and suggested that I sub out the upcoming gigs to let my back get better. With what would have amounted to roughly 42 hours on a bus (just under 2700 miles), setting up, playing a couple of 2 hour shows and tearing down Dr. Beckham strongly advised against my trying to make it. I went home, got in touch with Slim, subbed the gigs out, took some medication and prepared to just rest and let my back heal.


A couple days into this I noticed a strange development. One of my inguinal hernias that I had as an infant looked like it had ruptured. Upon another trip to Dr. Beckham, he pointed me toward Dr. John Boskind to have it examined. Sure enough,

my suspicions were correct. Luckily it wasn’t serious enough to need to be repaired right then. I went back home to rest for another week or so before having to be back on the road. I just had to make sure to not strain myself or lift anything heavy.


After a couple of weeks of working both in town, on the road and my back feeling a little better, my hernia was beginning to irritate me a little more; nothing too painful, just uncomfortable. I decided then it was time to get with Dr. Boskind about getting it put back in place. Scheduling the surgery for a month or so later, I went back to playing and continued to avoid any overly strenuous activity. I also went over this situation with Chesnutt’s band leader to arrange for a substitute in order for me to spend 2 weeks, of the recommended 4, healing from the surgery.


The last run I would make with them started on September 18th, 2008 and went for the next 14 days. In those 14 days, we would travel a total of 6,500 miles and play 6 gigs….2 in Texas, 3 in California and 1 in Washington State. During this run, my discomfort continued and I can safely say between the ridiculous amount of travel with minimal gigs, my growing frustration of working for an organization with no progressive thinking,and with no control over that, along with the pain, discomfort, medication (prescribed, over the counter and extracurricular), it didn’t make me the most pleasant person to be around, to say the least. I was looking forward to getting on with the surgery and healing process and subbed out the next two road gigs over two weeks. I also decided to take a full month off from any in town work that was a regular thing,or that came up.


The operation day came and went without much of a hitch. I then kicked back to let it heal as the pain and discomfort was quite something to deal with. Just going through the days as lightly as possible and taking the medications required by the doctor. I would only take the prescribed medications as directed and no more, trying to wean myself off of them slowly as I realized during this process how easy it would be to become addicted to the pain killers given to me. I did however notice myself getting a bit winded from simple things like walking upstairs in our house. I just figured that was due to the surgery I just went through and expected it to clear up as I healed; more on that later.


The following weekend, my second weekend off the road, Denay decided to do some painting in the kitchen and I was feeling somewhat well enough to try and do some light work. Not only in weight, but we literally had a couple of new lights to replace the old ones outside our front and back entrances. It was a pretty nice day. A warm day in October, but not too hot, I decided to give it a shot since it didn’t seem too strenuous to hang a light or two.

It began all well and good. Got about 2/3rds through the project and got extremely winded and dizzy. I sat down on the patio for a minute thinking it was just momentary, but a cold sweat broke out and Denay insisted I go inside and lie down, as I probably should not have been doing it to begin with. A couple hours later I felt better and finished that one, but figured I better call Chesnutt’s band leader to discuss my stamina concerns.


I called Slim on October 12th to discuss my issues and concerns with him, how I would be coming back on the 18th, but would still need a good bit of help getting my kit up and down. Upon this call, Slim informed me that Chesnutt and his management had decided to make a change,with me being let go. In other words, I am fired while healing from hernia surgery. As I stated before, I was not the easiest person to travel,or play with at this point, so I can’t say I blame them really.

This was, however, quite a shock as anyone can imagine. Luckily for me, my family was amazingly supportive. They have all understood the precarious and bohemian lifestyle of a musician, especially my fiancée. While I couldn’t really see the forest for the trees, so to speak, she immediately believed, without a shadow of a doubt, this change was something that should be taken for great advantage. She was right.


Denay said not to worry and take the actual 4 weeks to heal. After that time, get back to playing my local gigs, slowly get back in the loop for more road work, but most importantly, just look forward to the joy of our upcoming wedding the following month. Sounded great to me.


Ifigured it would be a good idea to give the guy I play with in town, Craig Campbell, a call to let him know what had gone down with the road gig and that I will be back to work in the next few weeks after fully healing. Figured it was wise to take that much time off from this gig since it was a club gig of usually about 3 to 3½ hours of playing with about a 20 minute break in the middle. I didn’t figure I could pull off that long behind the kit with just a couple weeks of healing.


Guess what happened?? Craig had decided to make a change as well, keeping the guy who was subbing for me ! That was actually more of a shocker than the first blow, but I figured my health and how it was affecting my outward treatment of others, was what contributed to this as well.

Ok,…what do I do now?? My health has knocked me out of both my main gigs. Once again, my wife said don’t worry about it, just heal and then get back out and network. That’s what I have always done if something has knocked me back…just pull up the bootstraps and head back at it. This was a bit different of a feeling though.



While the hernia was healing and my mobility was getting better, I still couldn’t shake the problems with my stamina. I was still finding myself winded over the least little things. Having to sit down on the bed after going upstairs just really baffled me, but I figured this would go away over time of healing. I also guessed the weight I had lost from inactivity or loss of appetite would come back on in time.



With reality setting in that I had NO work at this point, other feelings started to seep into my psyche. These were feelings that I normally do not have to deal with as I am a pretty “Up” person, although emotional, as most passionate, artistic people are. These were dark feelings, scared feelings, worried feelings. The kinds of thoughts you have when the carpet you have been walking on comfortably for 20 years of playing has been pulled out from under you.

Then the questions start to come to you:

“What am I going to do?”

“Will I be able to find some more work?”

“Is there more work to be found?”

“How am I going to contribute to my upcoming marriage?”

Those are just a few of the things that began to run through my mind with so much time suddenly on my hands. The scariest question that continued to pass through my mind on an almost daily basis was this…..


Are my days of playing drums for a living over?? Let’s be honest, popular music has always been a kind of “Young Man’s Game.” At 40 years old, healing from a surgery and the gigs I had done, this is not an easy thought to keep out of one’s head. More to the point, that thought is SCARY AS HELL. While it is difficult to put into words how dark the thought got, just know that the worst did pass through a couple times.



These thoughts and questions began to send me into a bit of a depression on many days. As I said before, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and had NO idea how I would walk out of these problems. Denay just stayed by my side in every way possible and then some, reminding me again and again to just enjoy the well needed break from everything and, most importantly, to enjoy our upcoming November wedding and Honeymoon cruise. I tried my best to take her advice and keep focused on all that lay ahead of us. The wedding quickly approached, turning my thoughts more positive as the days passed. Denay continually helped in holding my chin up and suspend my heavy heart to a better place.



We married in the middle of November, surrounded by a gracious bunch of family and friends. The following day we took off for our week long cruise in the Caribbean. All this positive activity in my life with my now wife really pulled me out of the darkness that I had experienced in the past month and a half. I felt GREAT ! Only got winded on one excursion on the honeymoon in which we had to run about 200 to 300 yards through woods. Other than that, my indigestion that had been with me since my early 30s was the only real discomfort I felt.



Denay and I came back home and I began to set my mind to “Getting Back In The Game” the only way I knew how, go back out to start networking and sitting in again. Basically, just letting people know I was looking to get back into playing. This sent me back to square one of playing for a living in Nashville. Not only had I been off the radar for 2 months, I had been off for so long that my formally callused hands were completely smooth. This was the first time for that since before high school when had no place to practice during summers in South Carolina.



Anyway from then though Christmas, I picked up a gig here and there. Got through the first part of December, had two wisdom teeth pulled right before Christmas. Denay and I went to visit my family for the holiday,…all without much of a problem. My weight was still lower that it had been in years, but was stable. The acid reflux I had dealt with for years was still there but seemed to be somewhat under control taking antacids after every meal, or when needed. I was still getting a little winded but it seemed to be improving with time. We came back from Christmas in the Carolinas on December 26th in time for me to have a split double shift in the downtown honky tonks the following day, 2pm-6pm at one club, and later that night from 10pm-2am at another club up the street. Showing her unyielding support, my wife decided to come hang out during these gigs.



I began the afternoon gig feeling positive but a little winded. As I’ve done for years, I just played though any sickly feelings I may have had until, about 2/3rd a way through the gig, I couldn’t fight it and had to excuse myself from the stage. Immediately upon getting in the bathroom, I got violently ill, throwing up black. This went on for about 30 minutes. I eventually gained composure enough to finish the gig, but knew I couldn’t do the second gig. The weakness was overwhelming. Got a sub for the late gig and Denay and I started heading to the truck. Going up the hill from the clubs, I got violently ill once again. Denay said, “That’s it, you are going to the doctor on Monday.” I didn’t argue as I knew I had hit the tipping point of something serious.



We got to Dr. Beckham’s office as soon as possible on Monday. He immediately noticed my weight loss and ran blood tests on me. They found me to be suffering from severe anemia along with a massive loss of blood. He said I was missing about 5 pints of blood, which is about half the blood in the human body, and the fact that I walked in of my own accord, and was sitting up talking to him, was unbelievable ! He admitted me to the hospital at once to get an IV in me to replace the massive amounts of diminished blood while also scheduling an Upper GI Endoscopy (EGD) to find out what was causing the blood loss. I lay in the hospital the rest of the day with the IV feeding me blood, my wife at the bedside the whole time.



Over the previous months, I guess my skin color had very slowly turned very white and sickly looking due to the blood loss. Because my wife and I were with each other almost all the time, we didn’t notice this extreme change. As my blood supply was being replenished, Denay began to notice the rosy color coming back into my hands and my face.



The next morning they took me down and put me under for the EGD. I awoke several hours later to Denay looking very distraught. They had found a bleeding ulcer at the bottom of my esophagus cause by years of acid reflux. That wasn’t the worst news, but, Denay said that it might be CANCEROUS!!!! Yes, she had been informed while I was out that her new husband might have esophageal cancer.



Now, I don’t know what made me feel like this, but I had a feeling of calm come over me. I looked at my wife and said, “It’s not cancerous.” I don’t know why but I just KNEW. She relaxed a little and the Doctor of Gastroenterology, Dr. Lee, was notified that I had come around.



Dr. Lee came in to give us the news. While the ulcer was massive and the cause of the internal bleeding, upon further inspection, the ulcer was NOT cancerous. She told us I would be put on prescriptions of both iron pills to help sustain my blood levels and a double dose of Nexium each day to get the acid reflux under control along with subsiding the ulcer. Denay and I breathed much more at ease knowing this was the cause of my weight loss and stamina problems and that with the correct treatment, everything will be alright. I just laid back and continued enjoying the O-positive cocktail being fed into my veins for the rest of the day until I was released.



Since then I have continued to take the medication advised by my doctors. My stamina problems went away almost at once and my weight is back up and then some, especially with my appetite completely restored. I recently had a follow-up EGD to see how the ulcer is and am happy to report that it is almost non-existant !



On the gig front, I am back in action in a great way. The new artist gig is with a new artist, Jeremy McComb. It is exciting to play with a younger, newer, more enthusiastic artist on the country music radar.




Also, Craig Campbell called me back to play with his band. That was a nice surprise to return to the band that I had spent the better part of the past 3 years. Other work comes in on a weekly basis and things are looking more positive every single day.



Personally, my wife, Denay, and I continue to build our new life together.

Spending as much time together as possible each and everyday. I make sure to thank her on an almost daily basis for understanding what I do for a living and the crazy schedule that comes along with it. I can safely say, if it wasn’t for her love and caring support, I would absolutely not be here to write this article. She literally saved my life….without a doubt.



For years and years, music and playing was the end all, be all, of my existence. Due to the medical problems I went through, my focus has changed for the positive. While I will hopefully always be lucky enough to make my living playing music and experience the joy of creating that music, I want to give as much of myself to my family, and home life as possible, while continuing to work.



In closing, I can give a little advice to those of you who may be going through any type of trouble that may affect your health or your playing status:

First, if you think you may have health issues….pay attention to any warning signs and please get to a doctor and have them addressed. They are there to help you but you HAVE to be the one to walk in and see them.



Second, keep playing fun in your life. If you are in a gig that just makes you miserable, maybe it is time to look for a change somehow. How you change it is up to you but there is no sense in staying in an unpleasant situation. It can only drag you down along with those with who you come in contact. We ALL started playing music because it was fun….Keep it that way.



Finally, remember that those who love and support you come first. I am talking of your family and true friends. These are the people that will be with you through the good times and the tough times.



May you all have more good times than bad times. Good luck and Good Groovin’ !


Lee Kelley

Nashville, TN

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