By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
She didn't want to hit a New York City emergency room without a gaping wound. One of her guests that day was a physician, so she went to work. The doctor said it was a headache; Debra told him she doesn't get headaches.
She taped the first segment despite the pain. She looked at the 70 people on the set and thought to herself, "I can't leave -- if I do, I'll put them out of work." Debra decided that on her lunch break she would go to the hospital, get an MRI, come back, tape the rest of the show and have surgery that night. She walked over to a chair and blacked out.
In New York Hospital's waiting room, Debra slipped in and out of consciousness. "I remember staring at the security guard's gun and thinking, 'If I can get to it, I won't be in pain anymore,' " she says.
After eight hours of tests, the doctor confirmed her self-diagnosis: She had a small aneurysm in her sinus cavity. There was too much blood in her brain to operate; they needed to wait a week so it would dry up and he could see better. He gave her a one-in-ten chance of survival.
She spent a week in the hospital facing the fact that she would probably die. She asked God to forgive her for not making her life count more, for emceeing fashion shows and charity benefits but not actually sitting down with a needy child. If she lived, she'd have faced her worst fear, and if she died, she could see her baby brother again. "I was excited both ways," she says.
The last time she saw her brother, Gaines Duncan Jr., she was running out the door wanting to drive home before it got dark. He was killed three days later when a drunk driver crossed four lanes of traffic and slammed into his motorcycle. Debra missed him. A decade after his death, she still picked up her cell phone and started to call him before realizing he didn't have a number.
She asked the doctors to give her something for the pain. She was already on a full morphine drip, but she couldn't feel it. "I told the doctor to go to the street corner and ask the drug dealers if they maybe knew of something stronger, because they didn't have to get FDA approval," she says.
The night before the operation, the doctor said in the worst-case scenario she'd die on the table. Or she could end up comatose with brain damage and memory loss.
After four hours of surgery, she awoke feeling tired and groggy; her mind was blurry and nothing was connecting. "It's almost like you've gone past the point of being drunk," she says. Lying down hurt, and sitting up irritated her more. She watched the sun come up and go down for two sleepless weeks. Her husband and parents visited during the day, but no one stayed overnight. She asked the nurses which patients didn't have visitors, and she took them her flowers. She spent nights talking to patients in comas or people awaiting surgery. "I was doing my Mother Teresa thing," she says.
The night before she went back on the air for Good Morning Texas, she stood in her bedroom looking at her bald spot and the dip in her forehead where her skull didn't fit back together. Staring in the mirror, she thought about the past month and started crying. "It was a release of a lot of emotion I refused to have, because I tried to make everyone feel comfortable," Debra says.
Her husband walked in and said he couldn't believe her. "You should be grateful that God saved your life, and instead you're crying about your hair," he said. The fight escalated, and she told him he didn't understand.
She put her hands over her ears and said, "Don't yell at me. Please, don't yell at me." She backed up against the wall and cried as he walked out of the room. They had been fighting more, and both were feeling frustrated.
"I just felt so alone," she says.
He went downstairs to the library, then came back. She was still sobbing as he quietly sat down and put his arms around her.
THE SHOW: STRANGE MEDICINE
Tuesday, January 9, 2001
Debra strides past pictures of Channel 13's action-news team. In the corner is a full-length portrait of herself flanked by head shots of Sally Jessy Raphael and Rosie O'Donnell.
Behind the set, she grabs her contacts and picks up the script. Not much is spontaneous on the show; if an audience member is going to ask a question, Debra knows beforehand.
She pokes her head into the break room, smiles and shakes hands with the guests. A sex therapist hands Debra a copy of his book. "I want to have the honor of you having this in your library," he says.
She looks at the title, Loving with Passion. "In my personal library," she says in a bawdy bedroom voice.
"With the energy we saw on your show, you could probably write the book," he says.