Last Breath: I Nearly Lost My Life By Not Listening to My Body

"I wasn’t sure if I would ever create again."
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"I wasn’t sure if I would ever create again."
Kenton Dunson

This is a special guest editorial by Maryland-based lyricist and producer Kenton Dunson, who, in 2017, almost died because of the formation of blood clots in his lungs. Accompanying the editorial is the premiere of Dunson's self-produced new single, "Last Breath," which is currently streaming on Audiomack.

After wrapping up a Friday gym session, I felt an aching pain in my ribs. The sharp discomfort seemed like it could be an intense muscle pull, so I just ignored it as post-workout pain. As time went on, though, it got worse. Day after day, the pain intensified and it became unbearable to sit upright at my studio desk or even lie down. Every time I passed over a speed bump while driving, it felt like my inner organs were hanging by a thread.

One night, the pain was so bad that I thought I was having a heart attack. First I was sweating and then I was squirming on the floor. But I didn’t want to go to the ER because my health insurance coverage had lapsed. I tried to wait it out, searching for online remedies in an attempt to self-diagnose the condition. I tried to sleep upright on a pillow-covered chair in my living room because laying down wasn’t even possible at this point. It got so bad that I stood for 18 hours in a row, drinking apple cider vinegar and lemon juice in hopes that it was merely a gallstone that needed to pass.

By Monday night, three days and two complete body spasms later, I called my mother and told her exactly what was going on. She implored me to disregard the situation with my insurance and to get to the hospital immediately. Driving carefully as to avoid the potholes on I-270 North, my girlfriend rushed me to Shady Grove Hospital Emergency Unit in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I inched toward the check-in desk, still worried about my lack of medical coverage.

I spent three hours waiting to be seen by a doctor. I was short-tempered from waiting and my feet were numb from standing because sitting closed off my wind supply. When the hospital staff finally invited me back to the pit, I was hooked up to an EKG and the nurses instructed me to lay down. But I literally couldn’t. It was as if they thought I had some superhuman immunity to pain. It was pure agony.

Eventually, the doctor instructed my nurse to give me a powerful sedative so I could lay down. In short order, I was admitted, given an angiogram (an x-ray to evaluate blockages in the arterial system) and woke up to a diagnosis: bilateral pulmonary embolism. This is a condition where blood clots form in the lungs, blocking blood flow to vital organs and gradually obstructing airflow to the lungs. This is a condition that kills 30% of its sufferers, or one person every six minutes.

For the next eight days, I laid in a hospital bed in and out of consciousness, unaware of my friends and family coming to visit, my girlfriend there the entire time changing my sheets and emptying my portable urinals because I still could not stand or walk. The drugs they gave me thinned my blood and dissolved the clots in my lungs. There were random nurses frequently extracting blood on a constant cycle. I broke out in cold sweats and hives from the assortment of medications I was taking. I remember trying to mentally fight through it as if it were a deep dream. This was hell.

Kenton Dunson

Dunson at Shady Grove Hospital

Since 2014, my social media profiles have read the phrase “Don’t Die with Music in You.” During this experience, that phrase became too relevant. I wasn’t sure if I would ever create again; if all my drafts, ideas, and concepts would go unreleased. As an artist who has seen glimpses of success but is still striving to make a bigger impact with his music, this health scare put my entire life into perspective.

Why did I overlook my health and my health coverage? Why didn’t I protect my dream? 

I didn’t give a damn about my health. None of the biggest rock stars did, right? 

Sure, I worked out often, mainly to listen to my previous night’s work. Hell, I lost 100 pounds before I released my first project. But from 2010 through 2016, I slugged nearly a bottle of bourbon nightly to support my “artistic workflow,” all while sabotaging my overall well-being in the race to success. I was always convinced that achieving success would make everything else right. Bullshit! 

It was all bullshit.

Now more than ever, the conversation around wellness in the creative community should be at the forefront. The no-sleep mentality is absurd. I recall the time I was recording The Investment mixtape in New York when a manager mentioned to me, “Yo, you’re in here until 4 a.m. every night and I’ve never seen you take a nap, B,” almost as if it were a badge of honor. I’ve stayed up finishing tracks on the Megabus from DC to Toronto with no sleep, flown from Maryland to Los Angeles and back within 24 hours on multiple occasions to chase opportunities I thought I couldn’t afford to miss. But I was in mental, spiritual, and physical chaos.

I just completed a year of regular check-ups, limited travel, a modified diet, and a steady dose of blood thinners. For fear of recurrence, I do a daily yoga routine and get at least six hours of sleep nightly—I should get even more. I possess more clarity than I’ve ever had and while I know a chaotic approach made me a sharper artist in some ways, there should have been a more well-thought-out method to my madness.

If you protect yourself, you’ll keep the creativity possible. I am not a robot. You are not a robot. We are human. 

Remember that fact, before it's too late.

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