Annus Horribilis

The El Orbits' David Beebe comes back from the near-dead

The year 2001 was a very bad one. There was September 11. There was the great apocalyptic ArmagedEnron Meltdown. There was Andrea Yates. There was the Fat City tag, the UH Cougars' first winless football season, and just a whole bunch of other crap. Queen Elizabeth II of England recently called a similar year for the Windsors an annus horribilis, and it's hard to top Latin for powers of description, as long as it can be easily deciphered.

On the local musical front, there was the arrest of South Park Mexican, which carries with it the possibility that one of our most successful musical native sons is a pedophilic rapist. Also, numerous musicians in Houston and Austin passed away (sadly, a trend that so far has carried over into this year), and El Orbits drummer-singer David Beebe, whose career spans the two cities, knew them all.

And last year he almost joined them in the grave.

An inkling that 2002 just might be a better year than the one preceding came when Beebe got back behind the drums on February 12 at a Lenten eve pancake supper at Trinity Episcopal Church with the El Orbits again for the first time in over two months.

"I like to stay busy," the supertalkative Beebe said. "And that's what probably saved my life." As playing music is what Beebe likes best, it's not much of a stretch to say the music saved his life. Judge for yourself.

Like many of us, Beebe got a bad cold in November, one that turned into a low-grade bronchitis that lingered for weeks. Beebe continually gigged throughout this time and worked at the Continental Club, booking bands and co-managing the place.

After weeks of feeling generally cruddy, matters started to come to a head. Two nights before Thanksgiving, Beebe was coughing so hard he couldn't sleep. He took some ephedrine for relief and went to sleep. The next day brought no improvement, so he tried to get an appointment with his doctor.

The HMOs won again. "Although I have health insurance that I have been paying for years as a self-employed musician, I couldn't get an appointment, even though I was feeling shitty," Beebe said.

"So then I went to this Med-Cure Clinic over on Broadway near Hobby Airport," Beebe said. "There's a guy there named Dr. [Kris] Patel, and he has his shit together."

Patel was alarmed by some of Beebe's symptoms. In addition to the bronchitis, Beebe's blood pressure was in the stratosphere, which Beebe and Patel attributed to the ephedrine. But Patel was worried about some of Beebe's other symptoms, including shortness of breath, dizziness and malaise. He ordered a chest X-ray and discovered that Beebe had an enlarged heart.

Patel said that musicians -- especially horn players and vocalists, both of whom hold their breath a lot -- often develop slightly enlarged hearts. Beebe, fearful by this time, latched on to this explanation. He took an antibiotic shot and followed it up with a course of pills, and got over the bronchitis in about a week.

"But I still felt crappy," he said. "And Dr. Patel had made me promise him that I would come see him or another doctor if I still felt bad after I kicked the bronchitis. About ten days later, I still felt really bad."

The El Orbits, in addition to their club gigs, also work the private-party circuit hard. December, with its holiday parties, is a busy time for them. "I was playing a gig for a Vinson & Elkins party at a restaurant downtown, and we played for four hours, sounded great, everything went great," Beebe remembers. "But at the end of it I felt like I was gonna die. So I was like, 'I gotta go to the doctor tomorrow, no matter what.' "

The doctors were alarmed. Beebe's blood pressure was 215 over 165, despite the fact that his heart was operating at only 25 percent capacity. "Usually by that time you've already had a heart attack," Beebe says. "For some reason I didn't. It had weakened to 25 percent, yet it was still able to generate this type of pressure. I had three cardiologists trying to figure this out, how my heart muscle was so weak but was generating enough pressure to blow my head up."

Beebe was hospitalized immediately for heart failure. Apparently the bronchitis, abetted by the high blood pressure, had attacked his heart. It seems that many musicians in their early thirties mysteriously develop high blood pressure for no apparent medical reason. "I don't smoke or do drugs, and I barely even drink," says the 30-year-old. "I'm like Mr. Clean. I'm skinny, I go running, I was training for the Compaq half-marathon at the time, but I had to stop because I was feeling so crappy."

Yet Beebe's heart looked to the cardiologists like that of a long-term heavy drug user. "I'm like the only musician in the world who's never done any drugs. I used to drink a bunch of beer, but I never went any further," he says with a laugh.

Beebe was in the hospital for six days. The doctors told him that keeping his mind busy likely saved his life, or at the very least, kept him from having a full-blown heart attack. "The fact that I am always busy and active and playing gigs and being wild and crazy and always up on my feet -- the rest of my body was compensating for me," Beebe says. "It basically covered my ass."

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