Actor Ross Young has been performing in two holiday shows this month — and this is after completing a third show in November.
That busy schedule is not unusual for a hustling actor this time of year. What is remarkable is that Young died for an hour this past Aug. 6.
Talk about the Ghost of Christmas Present.
“He was dead, twice!” said Jim Cunningham, Young’s longtime close friend and the producer of “It’s A Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play,” which just opened at the St. Paul Hotel for 17 performances.
Young portrays Clarence, the friendly angel who helps George Bailey discover what a wonderful life he has lived.
Meanwhile, in “A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol” at the New Century Theatre in Minneapolis, Young played a character who is in a coma after his snowmobile has plunged into an icy lake. That show has two weeks left, but Young had to leave for the “Wonderful Life” production.
Both plays have an eerie resonance for a man who spent seven days unconscious while friends held a vigil, and who is now reaffirming for himself that he really has had a wonderful life.
“It’s impossible not to have reflected on issues of mortality,” said Young, 53. “Am I supposed to be here? Is it just luck? I feel like a very different person from who I was on Aug. 5.”
Just a normal day
Young, who lives in Crystal, was working at his home computer — trivial stuff — the first week in August when his mitral valve fluttered and he went into full cardiac arrest.
His wife, Deb, saw him collapse, called 911 and starting pounding on her husband’s chest. Despite Deb’s heroics, paramedics were skeptical of Young’s chances as they brought him to North Memorial Medical Center. Only 8 percent of stricken victims survive cardiac arrest when it happens outside a hospital.
At North Memorial, Young survived for more than an hour on a machine that eventually restarted his heart but broke his sternum, so violent is the action of the mechanical CPR.
“I was a celebrity because I survived for 63 minutes on the machine,” Young said.
His pulse re-established, Young was put into a hypothermic coma and placed in a room where up to 20 friends at a time waited.
He awoke a week later and immediately wondered if his producer had been alerted (he was acting in a different “Don’t Hug Me” show at the time).
Said Cunningham: “He asked me, ‘Am I going to die?’ and I said ‘No, it’s all under control.’ Then he mumbled, ‘Phil Olson.’ That was his first thought as an actor — ‘Has someone called Phil and told him I can’t go on?’ ”
Once Young regained consciousness, he started to recover fairly rapidly. He told Cunningham on his third day back that if things kept progressing, he might be able to make the second weekend of the show.
“I said, ‘Your heart stopped, you were dead for an hour, you should probably wait,’ ” Cunningham said.
A sympathetic visit
Among the group that waited out Young’s coma were actor Warren Bowles and his wife, Samantha. Bowles went into cardiac arrest on the stage of Mixed Blood Theatre in 2011 but also beat the odds to survive.
“It’s a very exclusive club,” Bowles said. “I talked to him about things he could expect, that they don’t tell you about.”
He showed Young the small lump in his chest where a cardiac device was implanted. Young would get one of those and lots of time in cardio rehabilitation.
The road back had its rough moments. For example, Young needed help getting back into his hospital bed at home after going to the bathroom. He would dread the pain in his healing sternum.
“I told whoever was lifting my legs that I’m going to scream because it hurts,” he said. “But then it will be done.”
If Young is grateful about this second chance, he says it is mostly in gratitude to the nurses, technicians, volunteers and doctors who helped him.
“They were so unbelievably supportive when I was vulnerable,” he said. “The degree of compassion, I was overwhelmed by it.”
Gratitude for friends
Friendships in the theater world are transient. You might do a show with a group of people, form intense relationships and then disperse to real life and the next job. Cunningham and Young are part of a small group of actors who have stayed friends since they first worked together in 1986. They have supported each other during health scares with their children.
“I told him that he was giving it back to me this time,” Young said of their bond of helping each other.
With “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Young faces 17 performances in 12 days, including five days of doubles. Cunningham has hired an understudy, “on the off chance” that Young needs a rest.
In “Don’t Hug Me,” he found that he doesn’t have the lung power to manage one song. His legs have nerve damage but adrenaline got him through.
The Christmas season has always been busy. In years past, Young would get up at 6, put on his “Wonderful Life” costume and go off to teach in the Osseo School District before a matinee performance. Afterward he would drive crosstown to watch one of his two boys in a sporting event, then return to St. Paul for an evening show.
“That’s what I really enjoy, a day like that,” he said. “That’s what I want to keep.”
What is this life?
Toward the end of an interview, it is suggested to Young that he has had a wonderful life. Does he hold a mystical belief in a cosmic blueprint for this life?
It’s a question he is now familiar with, four months into his new existence, and he measures his response.
“There may be a director, a God, a unifying underlying purpose in the universe but I’m not conscious of it,” he said. “In living life, it goes to being with friends, and the extraordinary relationships I’ve had. If there is any purpose, you make it in your relationships.
“I am profoundly in debt and I don’t take that lightly,” he continued. “I should reciprocate that and do the things I can, to make the lives around me better or more meaningful.
“If I hadn’t survived, I would have had a good 53 years. This extension is proving to be every bit as extraordinary as before. I want to continue doing what I do.”
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299