For decades, Bret Michaels has been the hard-partying front man of Poison, a glam metal band that's sold more than 25 million records. Bret's wild ways earned him a bad-boy reputation, which paved the way for reality TV stardom.
In 2007, Bret's scandalous dating show, Rock of Love, premiered on VH1 and became the network's highest-rated series ever. With his long hair and signature bandanna, this 47-year-old rocker won over a new generation of fans. Business mogul Donald Trump took notice and cast Bret on the third season of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, where he exceeded expectations and made it all the way to finals.
When filming wrapped in April 2010, Bret, a lifelong diabetic who competed on behalf of the American Diabetes Association, faced another medical malady. Bret's appendix burst, and he was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy.
Bret was recovering at his Arizona home with his girlfriend, Kristi, and their two young daughters, Raine and Jorja, when, without warning, he found himself back in the hospital, fighting for his life.
On the night of April 21, 2010, Bret says he felt something explode in his head. Doctors discovered Bret had suffered a brain hemorrhage, a serious condition that's often fatal, and they prepared his family for the worst.
But Bret, a survivor in every sense of the word, lived to share his story. In his first television interview, Bret looks back at that terrifying night and looks forward to a full recovery.
Bret says there were no warning signs that something was wrong on the night he almost lost his life. At about 11 p.m., while Kristi and his daughters slept, Bret felt a sudden pain and heard a loud pop.
"I've never been shot, thank God, but I can tell you this: It sounded like a small handgun went off in the back of my head," he says. "They call it a thunderclap, and I've never instantaneously had a headache like that in my entire life. The word's not even a headache. It's like a migraine times 10."
As the pain spread from Bret's temple to the back of his skull, he says his adrenaline kicked in and he went into survival mode. Bret managed to wake up Kristi and told her he needed to go to the emergency room. "I did not want to be collapsed on the floor in the morning when my daughters and family got up and see me lying there, either unconscious or worse," he says.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, Bret says his head hurt so badly, he didn't want get out of the car. "All I could do was just hold my head. Kristi went in. I said: 'Don't get anybody. Just let me sit here,'" he says. "And that's the worst thing you can do. That's how a lot of people that have this happen pass away. They try to sleep through it, or they're in so much pain they don't want to do anything."
A medical team rushed out and put Bret in a wheelchair, but from then on, he says everything is a blur.
Doctors immediately performed a CAT scan and discovered that Bret had suffered a spontaneous subarachnoid hemorrhage, or sudden bleeding around the brain. Kristi remembers what happened next vividly.
"We were in the emergency room, and [the doctor] came in and said, 'It's not good news.' And he said, 'I heard you two talking about you having daughters. You might want to say goodbye to them,'" she says. "[Bret] just kept telling me, 'Tell the girls I love them.'"
As Bret laid in the hospital bed and watched a team of 10 or 11 doctors perform tests, he says his life did not flash before his eyes. "What happened was I got very sad. I went into completely just asking God, 'You've got to let me live through this,'" he says. "I was doing a lot of asking at that point. [I thought]: 'I know I've done a lot of rotten things. I'm asking for a break here, and if you could cut me a break just this time, I promise I'll be better in the future.'"
Bret says the moment he realized he might die was "surreal."
"It's funny because it puts things in perspective real quickly," he says. "People say this happens, but it really happened to me. [You think about] your immediate family, your kids, your best friends. At that point, you're not thinking about anything else."
When Kristi, Bret's on-and-off girlfriend for more than 16 years, heard the prognosis, she says she couldn't imagine her daughters growing up without their dad. "It was horrible," she says.
Raine, Bret's 9-year-old daughter, says she was scared her dad might die. "All these memories were just flashing through my head of him...the first time onstage with him, the first time singing in the mic with him, the first time playing basketball," she says. "To think that my dad wouldn't be growing up with me, and my dad wouldn't be walking me down the aisle for my wedding, it was just really heartbreaking."
The love of family and friends helped Bret pull through. "It gave me this unsinkable strength. It gave me this amazing courage to want to survive," he says. "I'm one of those guys who truly believes in mind over matter."
For three days, Bret drifted in and out of consciousness before his condition began to improve. But, even on these dark days, Bret stayed true to himself.
In true rock star fashion, he wore his signature bandanna while confined to a hospital bed, hooked up to countless wires and tubes.
"It's like Superman without the cape. I said: 'If I'm going out, I want to go out rockin'. All right?'" Bret says. "If I've got to go, I said, 'Leave the boots on, some form of the bandanna and a cape ... not in that hospital gown, no matter what happens.'"
Dr. Joseph Zabramski, Bret's neurosurgeon at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, says Bret's progress is miraculous. "About 20 percent of the patients don't survive the initial hemorrhage," he says.
To this day, Dr. Zabramski says they don't know what caused a blood vessel to burst in Bret's brain, but this condition is more common than people may think. "Probably about 40,000 patients per year suffer a spontaneous subarachnoid hemorrhage," he says. "About 20 percent make a complete recovery and are able to resume all of their normal activities. Mr. Michaels was one of the lucky 20 percent."
Bret says there's one thing he wants people to learn from his near-fatal hemorrhage. "When you know something is wrong, you need to go to the emergency room," he says. "I avoid a hospital at all costs, and here I've been a lifelong diabetic. I'll tell you, when it happened and I knew something was wrong, your body tells you."
Since he was released from the hospital, Bret has been undergoing two rehabilitation treatments a day and is living with residual pain. 'I'm having a little trouble moving my lower extremities," he says. "The neck is very stiff. The headaches, they're still there. They said this is to be expected for at least a month after this happens, and each day gets better."
Once doctors give him the okay to fly, Bret hopes to hit the road again and perform music from his latest album, Custom Built.
Bret says he feels like he was given a second chance at life, but he hasn't discovered why just yet.
"I'm just appreciative to be here and have such great family around me, great friends and a great medical team," he says. "[I] thank the good Lord or guardian angel—whoever is watching over me—that it didn't take me out."
After 16 years of ups, downs and dating shows, Bret says he and Kristi are now closer than ever. "It's really brought us together. ... She is a fantastic person and unbelievable human being," he says. "As they say, 'Being with a music man ain't always what it's supposed to be.' Sometimes it's glamorous. Other times it's months and months and months on the road."
Bret and Kristi took time off from their relationship while he filmed three seasons of Rock of Love, which he says he doesn't regret. "I'm thankful I got to meet a lot of unbelievably fun and/or crazy girls and women on that show," he says. "But at the same time, I'm so glad that Kristi and I, our bond is even stronger now."
As Bret begins the long recovery process, he's focused on being a good father and boyfriend, making music and working on upcoming projects, including a new reality series for VH1, BretMichaels: Life As I Know It.