Monday, in Rocks Off's review of Jerry Lee Lewis's show in Winnie, Texas, we mentioned that Mickey Gilley, legendary 74-year-old country pianist and proprietor of probably the most famous honky-tonk in the universe, was sitting at stage right.
Gilley and Jerry Lee are cousins, about six months apart in age, but while Jerry Lee was hammering at his keys with the same old dexterity he's always had, Gilley, who did not perform, required the assistance of two people to stand and wave to the audience when he was introduced by the MC.
A reader wrote to us explaining why:
Mr. Gilley was involved in a horrible accident falling back down some stairs while helping a friend move a couch. The previous year, he suffered from a condition that required fluid removed from his brain. The accident left him in intensive care, paralyzed from the neck down.
It turns out that following the fall, which happened in July 2009, Gilley spent nearly eight months in rehab at the Memorial Hermann Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, also known as TIRR, the same facility now making headlines for treating U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
We'd heard that Gilley had nothing but glowing praise for the facility, so we reached him on his cell phone to talk about his stay at TIRR, his continuing recovery efforts, and his return, last year, to the Branson Theater that bears his name.
"It's a wonderful hospital," he said. "I can understand what the Congresslady is going through, due to the fact that it's tough -- that rehab is really, really tough. But you've got to stay with it. When I got there I couldn't move my left leg at all. I'm walking a little bit now and I'm getting along quite well. They did one heck of a job on yours truly."
Gilley said he fell less than two feet off a series of steps, but landed right on his neck, damaging his C-3, 4, 5 and 6 vertebrae, plus part of his seventh.
"My spinal cord swelled up and for a little bit over a month, I was paralyzed from the neck down. I couldn't move anything, I couldn't do anything," he said. "I'm very fortunate I didn't break my neck.
"I've come back to the point that I can get around fairly well now. I can do a lot of things for myself without any help. I can take a bath, I can shave, I can wash my hair, I can dress myself. There's a few things that I can't do, but the majority of the things I can do very well. I can drive my car. I'm not back a hundred percent, but I'd say I'm back about 60 percent of what I used to could do."
Last April, he was well enough to return to the stage at his Branson, Missouri, theater. He sings from a chair onstage, though he's still not recovered enough to play the piano.
"It's been very depressing because I was so active," Gilley said. "I was playing anywhere from 18-36 holes of golf a day and I was doing my show at night. I still can't run around the stage like I'd like to."
"My goal is to play golf in the summer and be able to play the piano by the fall. My hands are still not cooperating. I can use them, but they're still not to the point that I can play the keyboard right now. My right hand is doing pretty good. My left hand is still a little slow. But I'm slowly getting to the point."
He's also upfront with fans about his injury.
"You know, I just kind of make light of everything, being a comedian. I go out and explain to the people what happened to me and they seem to accept the fact and they're glad to have me there," Gilley said. "I make comments about if anybody has any furniture they want moved to call Two Men and a Truck. We try to make light of what happened and try to go on and make the show entertaining."
Since leaving TIRR, Gilley has been in and out of therapy, depending on his performance schedule. Saturday night he's playing a show in Indiana, but he said he plans to go back to therapy next week, if he can get a prescription from the doctor so that Medicare can pay for the treatment.
"I had my shoulder manipulated so that I could raise my left arm above my head. It's working very well. I want to get back into therapy a little bit to do some other things, strength training and things of that sort."
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"I've spent the last 15-16 months trying to..." Gilley hesitated. "I struggle with a lot of things. I've just gotten to the point where I can lay down without having those spasms that go through my body. I'm having a few problems, but nothing that I can't cope with at the present time. I'm doing fairly well to be as old as I am."
Gilley said he also has hope for Giffords's recovery.
"TIRR was just a tremendous hospital and rehab center. I've never been treated so well and so nice," he said. "Those people are wonderful there. They're gonna do great for the Congresslady. No doubt if she starts going to therapy, she'll make it back. I'm very confident that she'll do very well."