Donald Sutherland health: 'I saw the white light' How the star clawed back from death


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Having suffered from numerous illnesses over the years, including polio, rheumatic fever and hepatitis, it may seem that the Citizen X actor would be used to battling near fatal disease. With a self-confessed appreciation of the medical profession, perhaps Sutherland’s most dangerous illness was spinal meningitis, which left him medically dead for four seconds back in 1970.

“I got sick in the middle of shooting ‘Kelly’s Heroes’. I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks,” the actor recalled back in a 2012 interview.

“They took me to hospital – I had spinal meningitis.

“They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they tell me that for a few seconds, I died.

“I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in.”

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Despite the commotion and concern for Sutherland’s health backstage, the film the 1970 World War II comedy-drama which also features Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas was released with mostly positive reviews.

Commenting more on his health, the actor explained that although he didn’t want to die, when seeing the “white light”, he was tempted to give up the fight.

He shared: “I didn’t want to go – but it was incredibly tempting. You just go, ‘Aw, s**t man, why not?'”

In light of all his past health-related traumas, most of which happened when he was a child, the actor has been a keen supporter of Montreal Children’s Hospital in Canada. Of which, back in 1989, he was named the honorary fund-raising chairman.


Spinal meningitis, which is what Sutherland suffered from, has two common types: viral and bacterial. The first is caused by common viruses that enter through the mouth and travel to the brain, and the other is caused by harmful bacteria that invade the meninges.

Other viruses that can also cause meningitis, include:

  • Mumps
  • Herpesviruses – Epstein-Barr, measles, influenza, West Nile virus
  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus from rodents.

Viral meningitis is usually less severe than bacterial meningitis and can prove to be fatal if not treated.

Due to this, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of meningitis. These symptoms tend to be more pronounced with the bacterial form of the disease because it’s often associated with more inflammation, compared to viral meningitis.

They can include the following: Fever, fatigue, rash, neck and back stiffness, sensitivity to light, nausea, double vision and drowsiness. It is important to note that individuals will not always get all of the above symptoms, or in a specific order.

The NHS warns that individuals should not wait until a rash develops, but instead “trust your instincts” and seek medical attention if you are concerned, especially if the individual is a child or baby.

Once diagnosed doctors typically recommend bed rest, plenty of fluids and medication to help relieve fever and headache. However, for some cases of particularly viral meningitis, antiviral medication can also be prescribed.

As meningitis is contagious, good hygiene practices are essential when near an infected person. Handwashing before and after meals and using the bathroom, not sharing food, beverages, utensils or lip balm can all help stop the spread of both bacterial and viral meningitis.

There are also some vaccinations which offer some form of protection against certain causes of meningitis. These include the:

  • Meningitis B vaccine – offered to babies aged eight weeks, followed by a second dose at 16 weeks and a booster at one year
  • 6-in-1 vaccine – offered to babies at eight, 12 and 16 weeks of age
  • Pneumococcal vaccine – offered to babies born before 1st January 2020 at eight and 16 weeks and one year of age; babies born on or after 1st January 2020 have two doses at 12 weeks and one year
  • Hib/MenC vaccine – offered to babies at one year of age
  • MMR vaccine – offered to babies at one year and a second dose at three years and four months
  • Meningitis ACWY vaccine – offered to teenagers, sixth formers and “fresher” students going to university for the first time.


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