Q&A: TV Exec Chris Licht on His Near-Death Experience

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Peter Kramer / NBCU / AP

Chris Licht

As the co-creator and executive producer of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Chris Licht was used to fast-breaking news. But he never expected to become the headline himself. On April 28, 2010, what began as a regular day at work ended in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital after Licht, then 38, suffered a brain aneurysm. He tells the story in his compelling new book, What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a Maniac TV Producer Put Down His BlackBerry and Started to Live His Life. TIME spoke with Licht, recently named vice president of programming at CBS News, about his life-changing experience.

One of your colleagues on Morning Joe called you "Captain Intense." Why?

It's a very small staff and a very driven team. The leader of that team needs to be driven, so I was always in the control room. We treated the show like rolling coverage, almost like it was breaking news every morning. We would always follow Joe [Scarborough]'s and Mika [Brzezinski]'s lead as to where the show would go. There wasn't a lot of time for it not to be intense.

How did you know something was wrong the day your aneurysm occurred? What was the first sign that things weren't right?

I had the most excruciating pain I had ever felt in my head. You can't even really call it a headache. It was just an overwhelming sensation that someone was squeezing my head. I was 38 and I had never felt a sensation like that. I knew something was very, very wrong. It's a strange dichotomy, because your brain is trying to diagnose what's wrong with itself. You start to think, am I having a stroke? What's going on? When I originally got to the hospital I was sort of led to believe it was not that big of a deal, because I was originally diagnosed with a stress migraine. [But] when they looked at the CAT scan, realized how much blood was on my brain and told me, then I became very scared.

How long did you spend in treatment?

I was in the intensive care unit for nine days. And then out of work for a little over a month. Which gives you a lot of time to sit around and think.

You write about getting a lot of calls during that time, and one particularly important one.

Joe and Mika came into the emergency room, because I was in Washington [and] they were a de facto family. They immediately took control and called hospital administration, let them know who was in their hospital, and really took over. And Joe thought, well, who do we know who's had something like this happen to them? And, the Vice-President [Joe Biden] came to mind. So Mika called the Vice-President, who immediately dropped whatever he was doing and started calling around and making sure I got the right doctor. He called that doctor personally, and told him to come and take a look at me, which was tremendous. Two days later, [he] just called my wife on her cell phone, and wanted to comfort her and say that it was going to be okay, people get over these kinds of things. And it was just tremendously nice, and the start of a nice friendship with him.

In the end, you were told that stress was not the cause of this. Were you surprised?

Yes. There was literally no cause. And that's one of the frustrating things as you're trying to sort through how this affects you and whom you're mad at. You know, I can't be mad at my parents, it's not hereditary. I can't be mad at myself, because I didn't do anything. You couldn't be mad at anybody. So you had to sort of put that anger aside. It can happen to anybody at any time.

How has your life changed?

You know, it took me a long time to figure that out. It has helped me de-clutter my brain, like a spring-cleaning for my brain. I'm just as busy, and I work just as hard because I love what I do. But when I'm with my family, that time I'm really with them. And it's much more important to me. The things that would distract me from my family — stress about work or a knot in my stomach over something I read on my BlackBerry — it just doesn't happen. Do I spend much more time with my family? No. But I am much more there when I'm there.