When I talked to John Dunnigan a week ago, he was just in from fishing on the Thompson Lakes. “I was on the water at 10 to eight,” he said. “Caught a little kokanee – just the right size for dinner.”
That he was able to walk outside on a radiant spring morning and cast his line on an unruffled lake still seemed miraculous to the perennially upbeat musician. A few months earlier, in late January, he landed in the emergency room at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish with an acute case of pancreatitis and pain so severe “it’s ranked right up there with childbirth, gunshot wounds and snakebites.”
It came on in the early morning hours of Jan. 26, after a regular night for the folksinger. He had performed at Casey’s Bar during the closing ceremonies for the Whitefish Skijoring competition.
Dunnigan, who had managed to avoid hospitals since a tonsillectomy at age 5, remembers nothing of the next three days. He woke up in Kalispell Regional in a morphine-induced haze, and realized his life had changed dramatically. Doctors told him an attack of that magnitude had a 30 percent chance of mortality.
“Life becomes very fragile”
“Life becomes very fragile, very precious,” says his wife of 32 years, Andrea. “I haven’t wanted to leave his side for three months.”
After a week in the hospital, he was sent home to rest and recover, although a recurring bout of pain sent him back to the hospital for a few days.
In mid-March, when doctors discovered that a cyst on his pancreas had grown, they scheduled emergency surgery for the next day to remove the cyst, his gall bladder, and the 30 percent of his pancreas that was no longer functioning.
The operation was successful, and he was released five days later to recover at home, after telling doctors, “this is the most fricking un-fun place to spend the night.”
Un-fun, but essential: “Wow, are we lucky to have those guys!”
Dunnigan is on the mend, with a very upbeat prognosis. “The doc gives me a 97 percent chance of this never, ever happening again,” he says.
But Dunnigan, who turned 60 last year, isn’t taking any chances. “I thought I was still 25 – playing Jimi Hendrix on one hand and throwing back shots of Patron with the other. Man, Jan. 26 was the turning point.”
The pancreas is a busy little organ, tasked with helping us digest our food. Inflammation can be caused by any number of things, including diet, alcohol consumption and stress.
At first, Dunnigan was on a vegan diet, which he describes as “barbecued lettuce and water,” but he gradually began to add protein and healthy fats to help him recover the 30 pounds he lost during the ordeal.
He vows to avoid fried foods and has sworn off alcohol completely. “The memory of that pain will keep me from ever having one drink, fried chicken or a big pepperoni pizza ever again in my life,” he says.
Meanwhile, with the main wage-earner in the family sidelined, the bills have piled up. “This is the longest I’ve ever not worked since I was a teenager,” he says. “No gigs, no income.”
In addition, an insurance snafu may mean that bills from the first hospital stay, which cost around $40,000, won’t be covered.
“Shut up and let people help”
Friends and fans have rallied. Scott Moore, a close friend and former member of the Bad Larrys, created a website called simply helpjohndunnigan.org. Within days, funds were pouring in. “It’s kept us going for four months with no income,” says Dunnigan.
In addition, fellow musicians are organizing the Dunnigan Fest on May 28 at venues in Whitefish where he’s performed over the years, including the Great Northern Bar, Tupelo’s, Craggy Range and the Crush Lounge.
“It’s awkward as hell, to be honest,” says Dunnigan of all the efforts on his behalf. “I was not sticking my hand out, but then I realized I was not going to be working for four months.”
“If I was a piccolo player, I’d probably be gigging again,” he jokes. But if he tries manhandling an 85-pound Fender amplifier right now, “I’ll be back in the hospital with a hernia.”
He credits another well-known Flathead musician, David Griffith, with changing his perspective. “He told me to shut up and let people help.”
Griffith speaks from experience. After a bout with throat cancer in 2002, the community turned out for a night he describes as “epic.”
He writes, “Ten bands and musical artists as well as family, servers, bartenders, caterers, businesses, and audience members gave and gave, gathering a very large sum of money.”
Even more important than the money, though, was the outpouring of support, “getting me through the tough times of post-cancer treatment and the many more medical procedures following. To this day I use the power of that night to help me through.”
“There is a very good reason John has so many friends and fans,” adds Griffith, who notes that Dunnigan is often at the forefront of benefits and fundraisers as a charismatic MC and performer. “I have never seen him turn down a request to help out.”
The Dunnigan Fest also marks the eve of the musician’s return to work. He’ll resume his regular Thursday gig at the Great Northern on June 4, and begin playing Fridays and Saturdays at the Boat Club at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake on June 5. From then on, it’s steady through mid-July when he hits the fair circuit that takes him throughout the Northwest for the rest of the summer.
A month out of surgery, he was getting in shape for the season ahead, limbering up his fingers and working on a catchy new song: “Oh what a mess my pancreas.”
And feeling thankful for his life, his friends and his fans. “The cards, the letters, the emails, the phone calls – it just humbles me.”
– Kristi Niemeyer