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A Pain-Free Jerry Lewis Returns to Laughland

The comic, shown here at the height of his illnesses, will take over Vegas this summer

TUESDAY, March 16, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Citizens of comedyland, your King is back.

Jerry Lewis, the King of Comedy, has beaten back illness and chronic pain and is planning to return to the stage this summer after almost three years away from doing what he loves best.

It's been a tough battle back to the footlights.

Lewis, who turns 78 on March 16, has overcome decades of debilitating pain, addiction to painkillers, a life-threatening lung disease and a massive weight gain triggered by the steroid medication used to treat his lungs.

"It's been hard. To perform all of your life and then they tell you -- 'That's it,'" he says during an interview at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. But the legendary entertainer, star of comedy classics such as "The Nutty Professor" and a Nobel prize nominee for his work raising money for muscular dystrophy, says his triumph over pain makes his comeback all the sweeter.

"Pain helps you understand other people, and doing comedy is the key to unlock the door that helps others," he says.

As he speaks, something in Lewis' eyes reflects his belief that laughter can heal, is itself a balm for pains physical and otherwise. "Am I this great knight on the white horse with the saber? Yeah, I really believe that. That's what comedy does for people," he says.

The comic's own crusade against pain began March 20, 1965. Performing at the Sands hotel in Las Vegas, he typically finished his act "by doing a back flip off the piano and a flat-fall to the floor," he recalls. But that night, a move he'd performed hundreds of times went horribly wrong, and Lewis splintered his spine.

"They took me off the stage, and I went into an ambulance plane to L.A. That was the beginning of 37 years of big pain," he says. It also marked the beginning of big-time addiction to prescription painkillers such as Percodan.

"I tried everything," Lewis remembers. "The doctor who was shooting me up, helping with zylocaine, marcaine -- all of the -caines -- he was making cocktails! Brewing it, " -- here Lewis cackles maniacally -- "like I did in 'The Nutty Professor.'"

But by 2001, even the most potent medications couldn't keep the pain at bay. Desperate for help, he went to his personal physician, world-famous heart specialist Dr. Michael DeBakey.

It was DeBakey who referred him to the Medtronic company and their implantable spinal cord stimulator. Lewis calls it a "pain pacemaker" -- a device about the size of a computer mouse, implanted under the skin and connected by electrodes to points on the spine. Using a hand-held remote, Lewis explains how he constantly adjusts the device to block pain-linked nerve impulses originating in the spine from making their way to the brain.

Lewis allows this reporter to touch where the pain pacemaker bulges from under the skin just above his left hip. "I can't feel it at all," he says.

He fiddles with the remote. "If I turn it on now, it covers the pain, I'm OK." Then -- as if he can't resist the moment -- "It also opens my garage door!"

Lewis' health troubles had gotten even worse three years ago when he was diagnosed with a serious lung ailment, interstitial pulmonary fibrosis. With IPF, lung tissue becomes fibrous, stiffening over time and making breathing difficult. Lewis was hospitalized and placed on high doses of the steroid prednisone, which improved his lungs but sent his weight soaring to over 260 pounds.

Fans distressed at seeing photos of a bloated, unhealthy-looking Jerry Lewis two years ago will welcome Lewis' physical comeback. Lounging at the Waldorf in a colorful Hawaiian shirt, he beams. "I've taken off 58 pounds," he says. "I'm at 202."

How did he do it? "Diet and rehab," he says, adding that the bulk of the credit goes to his "two girls" -- wife Samantha and, especially, daughter Danielle.

"Danielle, she's going to be 12 next week, she understands how close Daddy came to not coming back," Lewis says, clearly moved. He says Samantha and Danielle keep him on a tight leash when it comes to diet and exercise.

"They are on me all the time."

It's paying off. Besides the dramatic weight loss, Lewis' blood-oxygen level has risen to healthy readings as his lungs improve, and he says he's ending treatment with prednisone in just three weeks.

Lewis obviously can't wait to get back to the Las Vegas spotlight. His return is set for June 3, and he is currently under contract to wow them on The Strip well into advanced old age.

"I signed a 20-year deal when I was 74," he says, grinning. "There's a clause in the contract that says: 'In the event that Mr. Lewis is 94, he is allowed to work onstage with a walker.' That's in there! But I'll be there."

And he has no intention on giving up on Jerry's Kids, the annual telethon for muscular dystrophy research that he's headlined for 54 years. The telethon has raised almost $2 billion during that time.

"My staff tells me that they are going to bring me a cure in my lifetime," he says. "I said --'Fellas, let's think about what we're saying, 'cause I'm going to hold you to it."

Lewis sees his work as a paid spokesperson for the Medtronic pain pacemaker -- which he calls "the miracle" -- as just another way of reaching out to those who are suffering. "They have a [pain] pump that services diabetes, they have a pump that services cancer pain," he says. "I felt that it was incumbent upon me to let people know what I got."

"Spinal cord stimulators do work in a small segment of the chronic pain population, and they've provided significant relief for people," says Mary Pat Aardrup, executive director of the non-profit National Pain Foundation. But she cautions that patients should try other options before moving to such a highly invasive implantable device. "It's kind of the end stage, after you've tried numerous medications, a variety of Eastern and complementary options, or physical therapy," she says.

Even then, spinal cord stimulators won't work for everyone. Medtronic estimates that between 10 percent and 15 percent of those suffering from chronic pain will find relief from the product.

Still, the device "is out there for people who've given up," Lewis says.

His advice to those battling daily pain? "Don't sit in a room as a recluse because you don't believe there's anything further that can be done. I'm here to tell you that there's a lot more that can be done."

More information

For information on the causes and treatments available for chronic pain, visit the American Academy of Pain Management or the National Pain Foundation.

SOURCES: Jerry Lewis; Mary Pat Aardrup, executive director, National Pain Foundation
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