Two hours before an aneurysm burst in his brain, Jimmy Dutch Gaines was on the phone with Chrissie Dunlap, reflecting on how good he felt about his life.
The funnyman known for his Pizza Man blog and the Dude Weather series had finally made peace with the fact that at 46, he lived alone in a basement, worked at a downtown restaurant, and missed out on three opportunities to get married.
Gaines told Dunlap that he was afraid to admit to how good he felt, as though it would cause the other shoe to drop. “She said, ‘Nope. You should always celebrate when things are going good because those are usually fleeting moments,’” he recalls.
Fleeting indeed. At 5:30 p.m. that evening, February 9, Gaines was typing away on his laptop when he felt his head welling up. “It wasn’t painful, but it was really disconcerting,” he says. Soon he was slammed with a headache. He called a couple of friends in the neighborhood, but they weren’t around. Then he heard his upstairs neighbor Rodney going outside for a smoke. Gaines asked him for a ride to the emergency room.
The last time Gaines was in the ER, he hadn’t been put in the queue and ended up waiting for four hours. This time, “I was kind of an asshole to everyone,” he says. “I was pounding my palm on the desk, going, ‘No. I will not have a seat.’ I was adamant about it because I knew something was terribly wrong.”
The staff didn’t take him seriously at first. “I think they thought I was a bum trying to get pain meds,” he says. “But as soon as I had the CAT scan, everybody’s attitude changed completely.”
The staff wheeled Gaines in for what was supposed to be a 45-minute routine surgery. It took six hours. Three coils and a stent were placed in the middle of his brain.
Dr. Yasha Kayan of Abbott Northwestern was surprised that Gaines survived; most people drop dead from burst brain aneurysms. Those who survive are often permanently, or at least temporarily, disabled.
“My doctor told me how, at every corner, I shouldn’t have survived this,” Gaines says. “I’m incredibly lucky to have survived and be pretty much intact.”
Had just one of the variables in the series of events preceding Gaines’ surgery been different – if he had been lying down asleep rather than sitting up awake, had he hit a pothole on the ride to the ER, had Dr. Kayan not been on duty that evening – Gaines might not be alive today.
“Everything just wound up so perfectly,” he says. “I’m not particularly religious, but it’s just too much coincidence. It’d be like, ‘I won the Super Bowl, the lottery, and the Nobel Prize all in one day.’ Literally, those are the kind of chances that I beat.” He attributes his survival to “luck or Prince or baby Jesus.”
Gaines stayed in the hospital for over two weeks with nurses cycling through his room every few hours to put in new IVs, dispense medication, take blood samples, and do neuro assessments. On February 24, he was discharged. “Due to some health insurance/prescription bullshit, I’ll be doing my rehab at home,” Gaines wrote on Facebook that day. “Since I live alone, I’m going to need some help from friends as well.”
When Gaines’ friend and former City Pages writer Molly Priesmeyer saw his posts about his ordeal, her first reaction was, “I’m so glad he’s still here,” she says. Then she noticed no one had started a fundraiser for him, so she took it upon herself to set one up on YouCaring to help Gaines pay for the daily occupational therapist, physical therapist, and nurse visits that will get him back on his feet. In 72 hours, 115 donors pledged over $8,000 towards Gaines’ medical bills and recovery costs. The goal is $10,000, and it’s very likely the fundraiser will surpass that.
“The response has been amazing. I think it’s a testament to how well-liked Jimmy is in the community,” Priesmeyer says. “Everyone kind of knows who he is. He kind of has this presence.”
“It seems like everyone in town has about two degrees of separation from Jimmy Gaines,” says Erin Farmer of Brave New Workshop, where Gaines worked as an usher and front-of-house staff for over a decade. “He has a gift for connecting with people across all walks of life and finding a way to share a little positivity or bring a smile to your day. He’s got a lot of friends out here cheering for him and hoping he makes a full recovery.”
The donor list is a who’s who of local arts and entertainment icons like musician Ed Ackerson, music writer/musician Jim Walsh, and news anchor Jason DeRusha.
“I don’t even know what I could possibly do to repay everybody,” Gaines says. “It’s been a revolving door of people being kind to me.”
For the foreseeable future, Gaines will rely on friends for assistance with everything from transportation to the pharmacy to dropping off food to pitching in on household chores.
Physically, “from my mouth to my waist, I’m good,” he says. He walks with a cane, has sight problems, his brain feels “soft,” and his hair is falling out – but his sense of humor is as strong as ever. Gaines jokes about how Rodney turned the heated seats on for him during the ride to the hospital and about how Dr. Kayan is “mega-handsome,” he says. “For as smart as he is, he should be the ugliest Rolling Stone. But he’s not!”
On a more serious note, Gaines says that this experience has prompted all sorts of existential questions. Is there a reason this happened? What does he do now, going forward? Is he meant to start a non-profit and do good in the world?
“I feel really changed – in a really good way,” he says. He’s living a “new life of gratitude,” and says he can’t go back to the “crusty, cynical, ungrateful fucker” he was becoming.
“I’ve cried more in the last three weeks than I have my entire life,” he says. “I’ve not shed a single tear out of fear or anger or whatever kind of disappointment. Everything has been just tears of joy and gratitude. I’m just overwhelmed with love, and that’s a pretty good spot to be in.”
Find Gaines' YouCaring page here.