Bret Michaels had been lying on his living room couch in Arizona on the night of April 21, watching TV after spending a family day with his girlfriend Kristi Gibson and their daughters Raine, 9, and Jorja, 5. Suddenly he felt something explode inside his skull. "I thought someone shot me in the back of the head, like a burglar," says Michaels, sounding clear and articulate on the phone but occasionally stumbling over words. "It was the most severe, instant pain I've ever felt in my life."
Rushed to a Scottsdale medical center by Gibson and then taken by ambulance to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, the rocker-who had just undergone an appendectomy about a week before-was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding at the base of his brain stem). Over the next nine days he underwent round-the-clock tests in the ICU of the hospital's Barrow Neurological Institute as his team of doctors, led by Dr. Joseph Zabramski, raced to find the cause of the bleeding. Fortunately for Michaels, there was no aneurysm (a bulging blood vessel that could rupture and cause death). According to Dr. Zabramski, Michaels' hemorrhage "occurred for no reason at all" and was unrelated to his lifelong diabetes or the freak accident at the Tonys last year when he was hit on the head. "It's okay that we can't find the cause," he says. "In fact it's great." Michaels, 47, was moved on April 30 to a rehabilitation facility for physical therapy and is expected to make a full recovery. Speaking for the first time about his ordeal to PEOPLE's Anne Marie Cruz on May 3, he and Gibson discuss the critical minutes after the hemorrhage, the agonizing moments in the hospital and how this brush with death might just change his rock-of-love life.
Bret Michaels: All day long I'd been feeling a little out of it. I thought it was just from the appendectomy and pain medicine. And then when [the hemorrhage] happened, it sounded like a handgun, like it literally popped. It made my mind go almost blank. My neck tensed up. I couldn't move my head at all. And the pain ... if you can imagine a migraine times 10. I knew I was in trouble. My adrenaline kicked in to like 1,000. I was not going to have my family wake up and see me dead on the living room floor. I don't know what I was doing, but I was pacing because I just did not want to lie back down. I always think of a concussion where you don't want to go to sleep and just say you have a headache. But I couldn't yell because it hurt too bad.
Kristi Gibson: The girls and I were asleep when Bret came in and said, "We need to go to the emergency room right now." I called my girlfriend to come stay with the kids. We got to the hospital, and he couldn't get out of the car. He was sitting there just holding his head and saying, "I'm going to throw up."
Bret: [At the Scottsdale ER] they did a CAT scan. I knew I was slurring my words, and I was like, "Okay, this isn't a headache. There's something really bad happening." The doctor said, "Do you have kids?" And I said, "Yeah, I have two daughters." He said, "I would bring them to the hospital." And I said in these exact words, "Am I dying? If I'm dying, I want to see my kids, but if I have a chance, I don't want them to see me in this condition. If there's a chance ..." And he said, "Well, there's obviously a chance. You're still alive, and people die instantly from this."
I didn't have my entire life flash before my eyes when it happened. I was just sad. Not depressed, but sad thinking of my daughters growing up without me. It's the weirdest thing: You feel so much love and realize in a moment, in an instant-I know everyone says this, but it's really true-you focus on what becomes really important. You're not thinking, "I better make some business calls." My children, Kristi, my sisters, my dad and my mom-I wanted to call all of them.
Kristi: I was quite calm because I had to be, but when he went to have tests done, I broke down and cried. When he came back, I kept telling him, "It's okay, it's okay." Because I know Bret: If I freak out, he freaks out, and it's not good for his blood pressure to go high.
Bret: I don't know if I passed out or they drugged me out. All of a sudden, a day later, I woke up and I had a zillion wires and stuff connected to me. And I opened my eyes, and I was like, "I am so thankful. I'm lucky to be alive."
Dr. Zabramski: Once an hour we'd wake him up and ask, "Do you know who you are? Where are you? What day is it?" You're trying to assess whether he's getting any complications. He showed progressive signs of improvement, [but] I didn't feel comfortable he was really aware until Saturday [April 24]. Saturday, it was like the lights came back on.
Bret: I'm a believer it's a combination of will and faith. Will-and good medical attention-and faith. It just wasn't my time yet. I really believe that. If I had stayed on the couch for another hour, that probably would've done me in. In a weird way God intervened: The appendicitis forced me to come home for a couple days. Otherwise I could've been on my tour bus at a truck stop somewhere, nowhere near a medical center. Of all the ways that I thought I could go out, that wasn't one of them. Definitely not the rock star way to go out.
After the third or fourth day, I had the hyponatremia: My salt level dropped. Now I had another complication, [but] this is what they were watching for. Dr. Zabramski said, "You're beating this. I don't know how. I don't know why."
Kristi: On Sunday the nurse was going to sponge-bathe him, and he said, "I want Kristi to do it." So when I started to get everything ready, he told everyone to get out of the room because we were going to make out. [Laughs] I said to myself, "I think he's going to be okay!"
Bret: I do have a little short-term memory loss. And now there's [dissolving] blood in my lower spine [causing what's called chemical meningitis]. It feels like I cracked my tailbone. When they tried to stand me up the first time, I couldn't get out of the bed by myself. An hour later when some of the drugs kicked in, I tried it again and was able to stand on my own a little bit and walk a little bit.
Kristi: He realized, "Holy cow, I could've died." He said some things that I wanted to hear from him for years. He was like, "We need to go on a family trip." And I was like, "Yeah, that would be good!"
Bret: As painful as this experience has been, I was given a second chance, right? I don't want to sit around every night worrying this is going to happen again. What I want to do is make a positive bucket list and say, "I'm just gonna go for it." There's just so much more that I want to do and experience. [Getting married], for sure, is something I have never done. Kristi's such a great person. We'll see if that happens. But yes, that may be one of the big things on the list. My first goal is to get back [to] 100 percent. I want to continue to rock the world, and I want to continue to love my family and be a good father.