When his heart broke, ‘Monk’ actor Jason Gray-Stanford experienced his own drama

“Monk” actor Jason Gray-Stanford underwent a heart transplant in November 2020. (Photo by Anthony Mongiello Photography)

During his decades as an actor, Jason Gray-Stanford appeared in a few medical dramas, often as a patient. And in his best-known role, as Lt. Randy Disher in “Monk,” he faced all sorts of cases that defied easy explanation.

But the real-life drama of getting so sick he needed a heart transplant had nothing to do with what he experienced in Hollywood.

“None of this prepared me for any of this,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “And I say that with a smile on my face. But inside, a little bit of me is bubbling.”

“This” is the story of a healthy, kind guy who developed heart failure, was saved by the grace of a stranger, and then endured a grueling recovery. To pull through, he needed courage, luck and lots of good medical care.

Or, as his mother, Donna Stanford, put it, “A miracle is what it is.”

Keeping in shape has always been a priority for Gray-Stanford. As a high school student in Vancouver, Canada, he had a heart for sports. But one day, he ventured into his school’s drama department and thought it sounded like an easy option. “I’m just going to go and maybe meet some girls,” he thought. “And the next thing I knew, I fell in love with it.”

He entered showbiz just as Vancouver’s movie scene was booming. A role in the hockey movie “Mystery, Alaska” led to one in “A Beautiful Mind.” Eventually, he found himself auditioning for a guest role on a new series about a neurotic detective.

He didn’t get that role, but he became Randy Disher and “Monk” became a hit.

Gray-Stanford describes Randy as earnest, unhappy, and a good guy. He and Randy share a few traits, he said, but he considers himself “much more analytical.”

After the eight-season series ended in 2009, Gray-Stanford worked steadily. But at the end of 2017, when he was 47, the first signs of trouble appeared.

“I’m a very fit, very active guy, always in the gym,” he said. “It’s kind of my therapy.” And in a spinning class, he saw his performance drop.

He wrote it off until early 2018, when he traveled to a shoot in Vancouver, Canada. His usual post-flight training left him exhausted, sore and “a little flustered”.

On the last day of this shoot, he was out of breath. His chest was thick and heavy.

A doctor did an EKG and told her, “Your heart is all over the place. You’re in a crazy arrhythmia right now.”

A trip to the ER and a week of testing followed. Doctors told him that his heart’s ejection fraction – a measure of how efficiently the heart pumps blood out to the body – was only 30%. A normal reading is 50% to 70%.

“And they came in shortly after and said, ‘You have heart failure,'” Gray-Stanford said.

From the outside, he does not panic. “But inside I was just in incredible denial. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”

Later, he received a definitive diagnosis: idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy.

Cardiomyopathies are diseases of the heart muscle that cause the heart to enlarge and prevent it from pumping blood properly. It’s heart failure.

The term ‘idiopathic,’ he said, ‘basically means, ‘We don’t know how it happened.'”

About half the time, people with dilated cardiomyopathy have a family history of the problem, according to statistics from the American Heart Association. Gray-Stanford did not.

Dr. Jamil Bashir, chief of cardiac surgery at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, treated the actor. He said that, as with many serious illnesses, the environment and genetics play a role. With dilated cardiomyopathy, it’s “becoming increasingly clear that it’s somehow related to viruses.”

Usually, a virus that affects the heart does little damage. But sometimes, Bashir said, even young, healthy people with no other apparent triggers get sick.

The diagnosis shocked Gray-Stanford, who always thought heart disease was caused by bad habits. It wasn’t him. “I had a healthy diet. I exercised. I did all the right things. Still, here I am.”

Heart failure can be treated with medication, and initially it worked. Soon Gray-Stanford was back in the gym, “pretty much doing everything I was doing.” Things seemed stable.

Until the end of 2019.

He was exercising. “The spinning class started,” he recalls. “And 15 minutes later I woke up on the floor.”

Ambulances and paramedics came as onlookers stood in awe. Doctors suspect his heart had spun out of control, a condition called ventricular tachycardia.

After that, in early 2020, doctors implanted a pacemaker to help his heart maintain a steady rhythm, as well as a defibrillator to shock him if he started racing dangerously.

With the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, he ended up in hospital a few weeks later. Now the problem wasn’t just his heart, which had an ejection fraction in his 20s. Starved of blood, his liver and kidneys struggled.

“It was a one-way incline, and it was going downhill,” Gray-Stanford said. But he kept trying to stay positive and fought what doctors were telling him: he would probably need a heart transplant.

His refusal hid a deep fear. “Some people are afraid of heights and snakes and spiders or guns or whatever,” he said. “I was afraid of being disabled or losing my health.”

He was able to go home. But with his heart beating so badly, “climbing the stairs becomes incredibly difficult,” he said. “Walking your dog becomes incredibly difficult.”

By early November, he was back at St. Paul’s Hospital. “We thought it would be like before, where he was treated, he would come back, and everything would be fine again,” says his mother. “But this time it wasn’t right.”

Gray-Stanford recalls the cardiology team meeting in his bed and saying, “You have two alternatives here. One is that we need to start prepping you for a heart transplant,” which would require a battery of tests, quickly.

“And your other alternative is death.”

His heart’s ejection fraction was in his teens now. Yet he resisted.

“Foolishly, I said, ‘Let me think about it. “”But faced with the fact that the strong drugs he was taking weren’t doing the job, he pulled himself together.

A heart was soon available. And not just any heart – a young, healthy heart that was an almost perfect match.

He does not know the donor or the circumstances. But the next morning it was time to operate.

His mother saw him leave. “I’ll tell you, there’s nothing more humiliating and scary than accompanying your son to the operating room for a heart transplant.”

Bashir did the operation. Gray-Stanford’s heart was black. Without the donor, he would be dead within weeks.

Her mother quickly learned that the operation had worked. “The heart was fine,” Stanford said. “And it started pounding right away. And I was beside myself. I had tears running down my face.”

When Gray-Stanford woke up, his breathing tubes had already been removed.

“I took a deep breath,” he recalls, something he hadn’t been able to do in months. “And I took it without even thinking about it. And then I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. That’s how you feel when you really have a heart working within you. “”

Eight days after the transplant, he was sent home with his mother to recuperate.

In a movie script, the next scene might be a crossfade to a healthy, fully recovered actor on set.

But it’s not like that, Gray-Stanford said.

“There’s an enormous amount of physical pain,” he said, resulting from the opening of the chest. When you have an eight-inch incision in your chest, coughing and sneezing are scary.

His body had atrophied. Just standing up was a challenge. The pills that helped him stay alive also made him vomit and left him too tired to get out of bed.

His mother and younger sister, Jacquie Stanford – who took a three-month leave from work – cared for him. It was scary at times, her mother said, as they struggled with medication, tried to help her eat and debated the pains that warranted calling 911.

There were a lot of all-night vigils, Donna said. “We watched a lot of James Bond movies.”

But “we hooked up moment by moment,” her mother said. “And as he got better, we were more encouraged.”

And he got better.

“I say with incredible gratitude and confidence that I’m back,” Gray-Stanford said.

Bashir said Gray-Stanford has a good chance of living a normal life. It helps, Bashir said, that he is hardworking and docile. “He’s an exceptional patient. A great guy. So easy to deal with.”

Gratitude led Gray-Stanford to tell her story now.

First, he wants people to know the importance of organ donation. He wouldn’t be here without another “selfless and so generous” family.

He also wants transplant patients to know they can do it.

For him, keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor are key. During his recovery, he treated his days like a football match. If things had started badly, it was like a bad first trimester. “Once this one is over, you get the next quarter, to see how this one goes.” Ultimately, if you have three good quarters and one bad, “it’s a good day.”

He agrees with his alter ego Randy, who believed happiness was a choice. Reflecting on this, Gray-Stanford acknowledged, “I guess Randy and I are a little more alike than I thought.”

Donna is just grateful for the Hollywood ending to her son’s drama.

“There’s a better word than ‘grateful,’ I’m sure,” she said. “But that’s all I can say.”

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