11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
At 5:06 p.m. on Oct. 8, Liza Minnelli was singing in her rented two-story ranch house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., when suddenly she began, to shake, then fainted. Alarmed, Mohamed Soumayah, 52, her bodyguard and chauffeur, dialed 911 and urged, "I'd like an ambulance, an emergency for somebody experiencing a heart attack right now, please."
When fire and rescue workers pulled up to the waterside address six minutes later, recalls Fire-Rescue Division Chief Stephen McInerny, they discovered Minnelli, 54, "on the bedroom floor, semiconscious and disoriented." According to the unit's incident report, paramedics administered an "advanced life-support protocol" while Soumayah called one of Minnelli's secretaries to obtain medical and personal information. Then they whisked her off to the city's Cleveland Clinic Florida Hospital.
Minnelli left the hospital on Oct. 16, then returned three days later, suffering from dehydration. Tabloids suggested the Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner had suffered a stroke and fallen into a coma. Finally, on Oct. 23, Dr. Maurice Hanson, a neurologist at the hospital, disclosed that Minnelli was being treated for viral encephalitis, a condition involving inflammation of the brain. "She was quite sick and was in a very serious condition but is now recovering well," he said. "We expect to release her in a few days." By then Minnelli was already cracking jokes to friends: "The reports of my imminent demise are greatly exaggerated."
Half-sister Tina Nina Minnelli, 45, raced to Liza's side. Her other half-sister, Lorna Luft, 47, from whom she has been estranged since the mid-'90s, tried to do the same, but en route to the Los Angeles airport, she received a call from a Liza crony telling her not to come. The next day, though, Judy Garland's two daughters spoke by phone. "It was their first conversation in years," says Liz Derringer, a close friend of Luft's. "It went well. I know they plan to see each other."
According to a Liza intimate, the thrice-divorced Minnelli was told by doctors that she could have contracted the viral infection through a mosquito bite or water. Dr. Kenneth Ratzan, an infectious disease specialist at Miami Beach's Mount Sinai Medical Center & Miami Heart Institute, says there are some 50 types of encephalitis, only one of which has a specific therapy. Ratzan says that depending on the degree of neurological damage, Minnelli "probably feels like she's been hit by a truck." He anticipates several weeks of rehabilitation ahead, but adds, "She could easily be back onstage."
That's been the game plan ever since the high-octane entertainer, slowed by double pneumonia as well as back and hip problems, was forced last spring to cancel a 17-city tour of her 1999 Broadway show, Minnelli on Minnelli. Ironically, the musical tribute to her father, Vincente, was Liza's showbiz comeback after surgery two years earlier to remove polyps from her vocal cords. "The doctor told her she'd never sing and dance again," says her spokesman Michael Hartman. "She came back from a long way."
She still has a long way to go. Hobbled during the past six years by two hip and two knee surgeries, as well as her ongoing recovery from alcohol and tranquilizer addictions, Minnelli is again preparing for surgery, this time to repair disintegrating back disks and her left hip. She has spent much of the past few months in a wheelchair. "Doctors told her, 'Go away, lose weight, and then we'll operate on you,' " says gossip columnist and pal Liz Smith. "All she talks about now is working again." For now, friends say she is taking it one step at a time.
Linda Trischitta in Fort Lauderdale and Eve Heyn, Sue Miller and K.C. Baker in New York City