The worst it got, said Ralphie May, was when he began coughing up wads of foul phlegm the color and consistency of peanut butter.
"I felt like I was drowning in it," said May. "I stayed awake for five days. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I felt like I was getting stabbed in one of my lungs."
The truth was just as scary. In October, the popular stand-up comic developed pneumonia just before boarding a cruise ship from Tampa to Mexico, Belize and Honduras. Three days in, his illness took a sharp turn for the worse. When the boat docked in Tampa, May was rushed to Tampa General Hospital, where he spent nine days recovering from pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs. Doctors declared him unfit to travel, so he moved in with his in-laws in Sarasota.
Since then, the Last Comic Standing veteran has been recuperating in the Tampa Bay area, undergoing physical rehabilitation and trying to build up the stamina to get back on stage. Only now is he feeling well enough to give it a shot. He'll do so Tuesday in the first of three shows at the Tampa Improv. When he takes the mic, it'll have been the longest he's gone without doing stand-up in 22 years.
May, 39, says those six weeks have been some of the worst of his life — but also, for reasons he could not have foreseen, some of the best.
"Of all the places this could have happened," he said quietly, "this was the best place to have it happen."
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One of the most popular touring comics in America — he sold out Ruth Eckerd Hall in April — May knows that if he'd kicked the bucket in Tampa, some of his fans might not have been shocked by his death.
"They'd probably just put it to me being obese," he said, "and just write it off like that."
It's true: Ralphie May is fat. Pushing-four-bills fat. But he used to weigh twice that. He competed on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club and got gastric bypass surgery in 2004. He rattles off numbers from a recent checkup: Blood pressure at 122/62; cholesterol at 115; pulse at 72 beats per minute.
So what happened? Start with the schedule.
"The first seven months of this year," May said, "I slept in my bed a total of 17 nights. That's how you get sick."
A few months ago, May went to a hospital in New York for a kidney stone; that, he said, is where the illness may have taken hold. He taped his next stand-up special, Too Big To Ignore, in October, but felt progressively worse.
On Oct. 23, May was booked as the premiere guest on the Cowhead Cruise, a trek hosted by friend and local shock jock Mike "Cowhead" Calta. But the day of the cruise, he visited an urgent care clinic, where he was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. The doctors gave him antibiotics and an inhaler to open up his lungs, and gave him permission to set sail.
Bad decision. Three days later, May was in the infirmary, getting pumped full of fluids and oxygen. "My hands were gray. My feet were gray. … My lips were turning a little blue."
Back on land, doctors told May he had both bacterial and viral pneumonia, plus he'd developed clots. Intensive care. Blood thinner. Painkillers. He lost nearly 40 pounds in nine days.
"I was afraid I was gonna die in my sleep," he said. He pointed out that it was during his recovery that the rapper Heavy D died, reportedly of conditions related to pneumonia.
May has lost another 13 pounds since leaving the hospital. He undergoes intense physical therapy twice a week. His arms are bruised from blood withdrawals.
"I work out every day to build up my stamina," he said. "I just feel so weak. It's really hard. It's like having to learn everything all over again."
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Today, May talks like a man who's been saved.
"The doctors told me a lot of people would have just rolled over and died," he said. "But I got beautiful babies I had to fight for. I have a beautiful wife that I can't leave hanging."
The illness, May said, has brought his family closer together — especially his in-laws, with whom he's never really gotten along. Now, he wants to buy a home in the area.
His praise for the staff at Tampa General is effusive. "I don't know if people in the Tampa area really realize what they have in that place," he said.
Part of the reason he wants to do shows at the Tampa Improv — in addition to getting reacclimatized to the stage — is so he can give away tickets to some of the doctors, nurses and therapists who helped him. "I can say thank you in a way that most people can't," he said. "I can make 'em laugh so hard they cry."
He's been working out new material on health care, and believes the experience has made him "more empathetic." But he knows he won't be the same comic. He'll have to turn down gigs. He's pitching a TV show —My Big Fat Bucket List, about the things he wants to do before he dies.
"For a comedian, two things are hard: Not working, and figuring out how to not work; and gaining happiness," May said. "I've never been happier in my life."