Joel McHale opens up about infant son’s open heart surgery in 2005: 'This remains one of the most dramatic times for my family'
Funnyman Joel McHale took some time to reflect on big lessons he learned during one of the most difficult times in his life.
In 2005, it was discovered that his newborn son Edward “Eddie” Roy, whom he shares with his wife, Sarah, had two holes in the wall of his heart.
The comedian chronicled the nightmarish ordeal in a heart-wrenching episode of the podcast Meditative Story, during which he shares the story of Eddie’s diagnosis, recovery and what it taught him about the unpredictability of life.
The episode opens on the day McHale received the upsetting call from his wife.
"I’m parked outside of an audition,” he says, detailing the story in present tense. “There’s a script in my hands and I’m about to go in when my wife Sarah calls me. Sarah is at the pediatrician with our 2-week-old son Eddie. We’re at that parenting phase where it feels like you’re at a doctor every other day — but right away I hear something very different in her voice.”
Sarah told him the doctor said that he heard “some sort of heart murmur” and that they needed to take Eddie to a cardiac specialist right away and so she and her parents were heading to the hospital.
A stunned McHale recalled going into the audition, thinking, “Oh, well if I get this job I’ll have enough money to pay for whatever is going on with Eddie."
At the time, Eddie was struggling with breastfeeding so much so that McHale and Sarah had to feed him “with an eyedropper like he was a little bird.”
“It seems like all we do is feed him because they said you had to feed him every four hours, around the clock, but the feedings take two hours from beginning to end,” he explained.
McHale and Sarah ended up setting a schedule: She would feed Eddie during the days while Joel was at work, then Joel would feed Eddie at night while Sarah slept.
At the time, McHale was hosting The Soup, a sarcastic recap show about pop culture, which lasted from 2004 to 2015. The comic said the all-nighters caused him to be delirious at work due to sleep deprivation.
“I know how hard the days are for Sarah and I think if she can just get four hours, maybe six hours of sleep at night, that will be a gigantic gift from God,” he said.
However, the grogginess got so bad that he would get “these terrible dizzy spells" at work.
“I would be on camera with the room spinning,” he said. “I would sometimes half crawl from the couch to the bed like some sort of gorilla. I would sometimes have to steady myself against the hallway walls. When I go to work ... I would crawl in my desk and sleep for 45 minutes.”
“Then,” he said, “the camera turns off and I go back to this little baby who’s got two holes in his heart.”
After about six weeks, Eddie still wasn’t gaining any weight. That’s when the cardiologist decided to move forward with the surgery, which made McHale feel “relieved and scared.”
McHale described the experience of handing over their baby "for the first time" since he was born to doctors as unnatural. "It doesn’t make any sense," he explained. "And we realize, Well that’s all we can do. It’s a terrible feeling of helplessness. And we begin to wait. And we wait."
Eddie spent about five days on the pediatric cardiology recovery floor, McHale explained, and it was during this time he and Sarah met other parents whose children were also undergoing surgery. It was here he had an epiphany.
“Before the surgery, our friends and family would say stuff like, ‘We’re so sorry this is happening to you. We’re so sorry,'” he said. “Here in the pediatric cardiology floor, other parents say, and I’m not joking, ‘Oh we were hoping that our kid had your kid’s problem. And they say it kindly and warmly.'”
“After months of feeling like we were unlucky and had a terrible challenge, I’m realizing that we were the lucky ones,” he continued. “It seems so weird because it does seem kind of like, look, one elevator goes up and another one goes down."
Thankfully, the surgery ended up being a success. As Eddie grew older, however, it was discovered that he was severely dyslexic and had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and was on the autism spectrum.
"I think people always go, 'Why me? Why is this happening to me?'" explained McHale. "I learned now the phrase should be, 'Why wouldn't it happen to you? It happens to everybody else. Nobody is special and everyone is special.'"
Years later, when Eddie was 12, McHale and Sarah had another miracle moment via their friend Jimmy Kimmel.
When Kimmel revealed that his son Billy had a congenital heart disease, it was discovered that the same doctor who had done Eddie's surgery would also be doing Billy's. McHale sent Kimmel a message assuring him that the doctor was a "complete and wonderful genius."
Months later, McHale and his family met up with Kimmel's family for a "glamping" getaway. And on the way, he and Sarah told Eddie about Billy's heart surgery.
It was the first time Eddie met Billy, who was 1 at the time. When they arrived, McHale said Eddie immediately walked up to Kimmel, who was holding Billy, and asked, "Can I see his scar?"
"We're all surprised. It's not a sort of question that a grown up would ever ask," McHale recalled. "So, Jimmy unsnaps Billy's onesie and reveals his little chest. Eddie looks at his scar, reaches out his hands and traces his finger down the scar. We all look at each other and, of course, we all burst out crying."
For McHale, it was a full-circle moment that forced him to look at life's obstacles from a different perspective.
"Two things feel very clear now: Eddie has turned out just fine and Billy is gonna to be fine too," he said. "Sometimes when it seems like life's randomness delivers you a perfectly random miracle. And Eddie is a miracle. And so is Billy."
"Life is happening to all of us and when it happens to your kid, you just deal with it as best you can," he added. "You just love your kids endlessly and endlessly and endlessly."