This holiday season, Jasper resident Christopher Harris says he is a walking miracle — five times over.
Harris said he wasn't feeling well when he woke the morning of Thursday, Feb. 21. Not thinking much of it, the cosmetologist went to work and was having some chest pains when he returned home later that evening. Harris called his aunt to check-in, and she encouraged him to go to the hospital.
Within minutes, Harris and his spouse, Tyler Montgomery, traveled to UAB Highlands in Birmingham. The then-38-year-old received news that no one wants to hear once some lab worked returned.
He was having a heart attack.
"Next thing I knew, they were putting me in an ambulance to take me to the hospital," he said.
Harris remained in the hospital for one week and learned he would need heart surgery, which occurred on March 8. Later that day, he woke up in the ICU and heard someone say that his cardiac surgeon, Dr. Sara Pereira, couldn't finish the surgery.
"I didn't know, but I had died twice on the operating table," Harris said.
Pereira did replace Harris' aortic valve and placed three stents, but it was simply too risky to continue the surgery, which also would have replaced his mitral valve.
Unfortunately, Harris' journey to recovery was just beginning. He subsequently suffered a stroke and went into multi-organ failure. He spent weeks on life support and didn't fully regain consciousness until early April.
It was also in April that his dog of 15 years, Molly, passed away.
Harris later learned his heart issues were due to damage from radiation treatment two decades ago to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma. His cardiac surgeon said his heart and lungs resembled charcoal from the treatments, and there's nothing he could have done to prevent the heart attack.
His time in UAB was far from over, and he spent much of June on dialysis since his kidneys were not functioning properly.
One evening, Harris's spouse asked if he could bring him anything, and he had an unusual request — a Bud Light Lime Straw-Ber-Rita.
"I've never been a drinker, but for whatever reason, that sounded good to me," Harris said.
He later drank the beverage outside the hospital and then went to lie down in his hospital room.
"I wake up about an hour later and that was the first sensation of having to go to the bathroom that I had had," Harris said.
Despite being on dialysis, he was able to go.
"Two days later, I was taken off dialysis," he said.
He hasn't had a drink since, and in mid-July, he was able to leave the confines of UAB. Harris spent four weeks at DCH Noland Hospital in Tuscaloosa for rehabilitation and then started physical therapy at DCH Rehabilitation Pavilion in Northport, where he had to learn to walk again after spending months in a hospital bed.
Once Harris was back home, Mrs. Deb, his physical therapist, encouraged him to stand up at the edge of his bed, without assistance. It was a request Harris simply thought he couldn't fulfill.
"She looked at me and she said, 'Can't never could. Won't never will.' That's my saying, and it got turned around on me. So I stood up," he said. "That's the first time I had stood up since March. I stood there, and I realized there was nothing holding me up but me, and I just started crying."
As 2019 is about to come to a close, Harris is now walking again and working at a local salon one day a week. He has also resumed his duties as director of the local Miss Heart of Dixie Scholarship Competition.
Down the road, he may require another heart surgery, but for now, it's business as usual.
Harris remembers much of his time in UAB, despite being sedated, and says he never feared dying.
"The whole time I was in the hospital, I was never worried about me, I was worried about him," Harris said of his spouse. "The thought never crossed my mind that I wasn't going to be OK. I wanted to know that he was going to be OK."
Harris said a specific Bible verse, John 14:27, helped him through the uncertain hours.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."
Despite a tough year, Harris said he is blessed to be alive, thankful to the hands that healed him, and grateful to the nurses, family, and others who encouraged him along the way.
He's also looking forward to turning 40 next May, having lived longer than his mother and father.
Harris says the gift of life is greater than anything he could ask for this Christmas.
"It's completely different," he said of the holiday season, "because I wasn't supposed to be here to experience it. I'm counting my blessings."
He added, "What has happened this year is just a small part of my life."