When Montel Williams spent 21 days in the hospital recovering from a life-threatening cerebellar hemorrhagic stroke, his wife Tara Williams wouldn’t leave his side.
“She was Nurse Nightingale,” the talk show giant tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “She literally slept in a cot beside me, every day for 21 days. Didn’t complain once. Every doctor, every nurse that walked in the room had to go through her to get to me.”
“That’s literally what gave me meaning to live,” Montel adds. “Nothing else was really that important. The first four days, five days, I can’t really remember. I was in and out of consciousness, it’s all a fog. The only thing I remember is after I woke up and right before I went to bed, she said, ‘I love you.’ She was right there. That was all I was really living for. That’s what inspired me to fight.”
Montel, 62, was working out alone in the gym of his New York City hotel on May 30 when he had his cerebellar hemorrhagic stroke, a rare type of stroke that experts say can either kill or cause severe neurologic deficits in 50 percent of patients. Compared to ischemic strokes — the more common form of strokes, which are marked by a blood clot — hemorrhagic strokes occur when a weakened blood vessel in the brain bursts, leaking blood toward the cerebellum (the part of the brain that controls movement and balance).
Within seconds, the room started kaleidoscoping and “a wave of tired” came over Montel. But he pushed through, and miraculously managed to make the journey from the gym, to the elevator, up to the 14th floor, and over to his room where he told Tara to call an ambulance.
“I was in disbelief,” Tara tells PEOPLE. “At first I thought, ‘Hopefully it was just that he got overheated,’ because he wasn’t slurring. The first thing you think if someone has a stroke is, ‘They’re slurring,’ and he was coherent. Even when the EMT came, Montel was like, ‘This is the medication I had today,’ and ‘It sounded like a firecracker popped right here in back side of my head,’ — all so clearly. But I knew something was very wrong.”
By the time he got to the hospital, Montel had a pool of blood the size of a peach on the back of his brain. He was in and out of consciousness the first few days as doctors gave him blood pressure medicine to stop the bleeding and monitored him with hourly scans to assure his brain reabsorbed the blood. From there, he worked on regaining his motor functions.
“I could barely talk. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t stand. I was almost paralyzed, it was terrifying,” Montel says. “But I remember telling myself, ‘You’re not dying. You’re not quitting. You’re going to fight this. You’re going to get this back.’ ”
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Tara describes the next 21 days in the hospital as “a nightmare.”
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” she says, explaining that prayer helped her through. “His kids, our family, they were a huge support system. Everyone at NewYork-Presbyterian — the doctors, the nurses — they were all so helpful. But it didn’t ever get easier. It was frightening. I just didn’t want to leave his side the whole time.”
“I’ve never seen him in that kind of position where he was vulnerable, you know?” Tara adds of her husband, whom she married in 2007. “He’s a military guy, he’s usually so strong. When you see your whole world in that situation… it was so hard. You feel helpless, like you can’t do enough for them. You realize nothing matters but the people that you love, that’s it. And I just wanted him to get better. I just wanted him to get him out of that bed and out of the room as soon as possible.”
She wasn’t the only family member there for Montel. His four adult children, who all live in different states, all flew in to see their dad — as did Montel’s siblings and his own father. “It was amazing that they were all there,” he says. “They were very very helpful.”
After leaving the hospital, Montel flew to Tara’s hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, where he began daily physical therapy sessions at Work Plus Rehab — a state-certified rehabilitation center.
It’s been four months, and Williams has made a remarkable recovery. He still does daily rehab treatments to regain mobility, but walks without aid and has even corrected some of the deficiencies related to his battle with multiple sclerosis.
Mostly, he’s learned about the importance of slowing down. Not only have his workouts gone down “about 90 percent,” but he’s also lessened his travel schedule, is taking regular naps, and is focused on enjoying time with Tara.
“He was like an Energizer Bunny, he couldn’t be in one place too long,” Tara says. “Now he is a totally different person. He’s good about saying, ‘Listen to your body.’ He’ll take a nap after physical therapy if he’s tired, and he’ll feel better. Before, not in a million years, I couldn’t even bribe him to take a nap. He’s just slowed down in so many ways. It’s night and day as far as not pushing himself.”
“It’s been such a long ride and he’s made such amazing progress,” she continues. “It brings a tear to my eye… We’re both so lucky. We’re blessed.”