Prologue: The Fire This Time
I don't splurge on much in my life. My material desires have always been minimal. When I'm in Boston I live in the same suburban home I moved into forty years ago. For sixty years I bought suits off the rack (some would say not wisely). But I like a nice hotel. I feel I've worked hard and should be able to enjoy good food and stay at a nice place. If it's comfortable and the service is good, that's enough for me. I don't have to own it.
I was perfectly happy checking into Boston's Copley Plaza. As president of National Amusements, Inc., owner of a small chain of movie theaters, mainly drive-ins, I was there for a party to honor a branch manager of Warner Bros. Pictures. I was going to New York the next day. It was 1979 and we were in the planning stages of opening the Sunrise Multiplex, our first indoor operation in the New York metropolitan area, and between construction, booking and breaking into a new market, there was a lot of work to be done. The party at the hotel was going to run late. I would stay the night, get up early and be on my way.
I went to sleep thinking about work. It was well after midnight when I woke up and smelled smoke.
I don't recall ever being taught what to do when faced with smoke and fire in a hotel, or anywhere else for that matter. It's not something you think about when you check in. I smelled smoke and made the classic mistake; I opened the door. The branch manager, who was staying in the next room, made a bigger mistake. He opened his door wide and stepped into the hotel corridor. He died.
I was enveloped in flames. The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive. But even in the middle of terror there is sometimes clarity. I thought, What a horrible way to die.
Somehow I staggered to the window. It was stuck, I couldn't budge it. I moved to another window and, I don't know how, got it open and clambered outside. I was kneeling on a tiny ledge, barely big enough to put one foot on. I was three floors up. If I jump, I'm dead. Flames were shooting out of the window head-high and I crouched there, hanging onto the windowsill, my fingers cupped, my right hand and arm in the fire and burning.
The sound of the inferno was terrifying. The heat and flames roaring out of the room burned off my pajamas and peeled away my skin. My legs had been burned to the arteries, now my arm was charring. The pain was excruciating but I refused to let go. That way was death. I began counting one to ten, one to ten, hoping that a fire engine would come save me.
But it didn't. The hotel people hadn't called the fire department right away because they didn't want anyone to know there was a problem. What a disgrace — an outrage. I hung on the ledge for what seemed like forever. Finally a hook-and-ladder truck arrived. A fireman climbed up, cradled me in his arms and carried me to the ground.
At City Hospital, I lay on a table and could hear the doctors say, Give him so much of this, give him so much of that. I'm sure some of what they gave me must have been morphine because the pain of fire is overwhelming. And then I passed out. My family all gathered at the hospital. They were told that I probably wouldn't live the night.
The next day when I woke up I had third-degree burns over 45 percent of my body; my right wrist had been almost severed and was literally hanging off my arm. But I had no idea of the extent of my injuries and I was feeling pretty good. It was great just to be alive! It must have been the drugs. Still, I was fifty-five years old and there was a significant question about whether or not I would live. Even if I did, there was a uniform belief that I would never walk again.
My personal physician was Dr. Samuel Proger, head of the New England Medical Center. He made a critical decision to move me to the Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, the place of the highest competence in burn surgery. At Mass General they began to operate on me immediately. One operation the day I got there and then a day or two later, another. The pain was almost unbearable and my father demanded of the surgeon, "How can you operate on him again?" Dr. John Burke, the chief of the burn unit, told him, "If we don't operate, he's dead."
Forty-five percent of my body had been burned away, and to cover my wounds they had to painstakingly take live skin from other parts of my body, graft it to the rest of me and hope it regenerated. Skin will do that if it is successfully grafted. It was the only way that I could hope to have flesh cover my body. Now there is artificial skin, the research for which I helped finance, but in 1979 they had no choice but to flay me.
I didn't feel my burns anymore, all the nerves in those areas had been seared away, but the pain from having my skin removed from my body strip by strip was beyond imagining. If I lay still sometimes I could handle it, but when they changed my bandages it was hell on earth. I thought, I'd rather my children be dead than have them suffer the pain I am suffering. At first the nurses gave me morphine but I stopped taking it, not because I was heroic but because I got so little benefit from it. What was the sense of risking narcotic addiction when the pain shot through the drug as if it wasn't there?
I went through five operations, sixty hours in all, each involving teams of surgeons. I lay in the hospital for months. Finally, after the third operation, it seemed reasonably clear that I would live. The doctors gathered around for the final unwrapping of the gauze, the peeling of the bandages to see whether the grafts had taken and my skin had grown back. Success meant I had many months of rehabilitation in front of me; failure I didn't even want to think about. Dr. Burke peered down and said, "Congratulations."
"Congratulations?" By this time I had progressed to sitting up in bed. "You're congratulating me? You guys saved my life!"
"Listen, Sumner," Dr. Burke told me, "everything we know is on your body. Bone grafts, skin grafts" — my toes were nailed to my foot — "and the reason you're alive is you." Determination, physical or any other kind, is the key to survival. If I hadn't learned that lesson before, I knew it well now.
As I began my long, slow recovery, I was touched that the doctors who had taken care of me that first night at City Hospital were regular visitors at Massachusetts General. And the people who worked there were angels. Among the nurses who tenderly changed my bandages every day was an African-American woman named Dell. She was kind and friendly and I enjoyed her company. One night, just as she was talking to me and unwrapping my bandages, she was called away and a new nurse took her place. "What happened to my friend?" I asked. Her brother-in-law, I was told, had died suddenly and she had had to leave. As much pain as I was in, I had held tightly to the moments with Dell and I missed her when she was gone.
During my months of recuperation I had to learn how to walk again. Every morning they would literally drag me out of bed, and with a nurse on each side holding me upright, I would try to put one foot in front of the other. Usually I simply collapsed, but as the weeks went by my useless legs started to come back to life. I took one step before failing, then two, then several. I never felt strong, but after a while I moved from a teeter to a shuffle to a walk. One day, I was walking very slowly in slippers and a robe down the linoleum corridor when Dell suddenly appeared. I hadn't seen her in weeks. She had just experienced a family tragedy, but when she saw me her face lit up like a beacon and she cried, "Mr. Redstone, you can walk!"
Among the primary concerns, along with my skin grafts, was the risk of infection. So much of my body was raw and exposed that it was imperative that my environment be germ-free. The hospital couldn't keep my room absolutely sterile, that was impossible, but from the very beginning an old woman came in every day and mopped the floor. There are many ways to handle a job like that, many attitudes she might have taken toward her work. She chose compassion. "How are you feeling today, Mr. Redstone?" she would always ask kindly. I was lying in bed, each movement a moment of pain, but I'd summon enough strength to say, "Okay. Okay."
After months of surgery and rehabilitation I was finally well enough to go home. I walked out of Mass General.
A few weeks later I was carried back in.
I had just begun to regain my confidence and was walking on my own. I still couldn't pick up a piece of paper with my burned hand but otherwise I was feeling fairly capable. I thought that I had this thing beat. Then one night I started to bleed, blood pouring out of me. I was rushed to the hospital and the doctors discovered that I had a double pulmonary embolism. Two blood clots had hit my lungs. That was pretty serious, but if they had hit my heart I would have been dead.
Forget the physical discomfort from the plumbing of my veins and arteries. That was painful, but I'd been subjected to worse. After living through all the operations and the therapy and the excruciating uncertainty of not knowing if I was going to live, now, to be back in the same hospital once again at the risk of my life was almost too much to bear.
I was hooked up to an intravenous system and wheeled up and down the hospital corridors for blood tests every day. The doctors injected me with one thinner after another, trying to find just the right medication and dosage to eliminate the clotting. I was always aware that one fast-moving clot could be the end of me. The drain was overwhelming. What else could happen? Finally they thought they had it under control. And about two months after the clots had been dissolved, I began to feel okay again.
A year or so after I recovered, I went back to Mass General to tell the staff thank you. I had sued the Copley Plaza for negligence and I donated the settlement, several million dollars, to the Burn Center. Most of the same people were still there. One in particular. The woman who had mopped my room every day saw me, walked over, put her arms around me and started to cry.
By that time I had been elected president of the Theatre Owners of America, an organization which represented exhibitors in their extremely adversarial relationship with the movie studios, and I was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech to a giant meeting of theater operators in Los Angeles.
"You can't go," my doctor informed me.
"I'm going," I told him. "If I don't show up, people in this industry will say, 'This guy's dead, he's gone, he's out of it.'"
I traveled with a healthy supply of blood thinners and a nurse who gave me injections. My doctor made arrangements with a hospital in Los Angeles to see me in case of an emergency. No one knew this when I walked to the lectern and made what people later told me was a spectacular speech in support of motion picture exhibitors. I stayed the night in a nice hotel, got injected with blood thinners, walked onto a plane the next morning and flew home to Boston.
Now, was this ordeal a seminal event in my life? Was it some sort of cleansing fire in which I was transformed by a powerful encounter with death? Knowing how precious life is, did I grab it with more gusto than ever before?
Absolutely not. Some people may want to believe that's what happened — it's convenient, it's psychologically satisfying, it's an easy hook — but I don't buy it. It's nonsense. I hadn't changed. I had the same value system after the fire that I had before. Whether in high school or college or law school or building a theater circuit, I have always been driven. I have a passion to win, and the will to win is the will to survive.
And my love of family will always be the same. I remember how my wife, Phyllis, and my children, Shari and Brent, would sit at my bedside until the late hours of the night, hoping they would see me alive and better the next day. I love my children. They are my best friends, both of them now intimately involved in my business and personal life.
There are doctors who claim that your mental attitude will help you get through cancer. I don't know about that, but I can say with certainty that my will to win, my tenacity, had a lot to do with my recovery.
The most exciting things that have happened to me in my professional life have occurred after the fire but not because of it. It doesn't take near death to bring you to life. Life begins whenever you want it to begin.
Copyright © 2001 by Sumner Redstone