top of page

This Thanksgiving, the Weekly shares the inspirational stories of two thankful individuals who are rooted in Beverly Hills. They share with us the love and encouragement they've received from those who have helped them overcome some of the most difficult times in their lives.


One night while getting ready for bed, legendary comedienne Phyllis Diller said she had a "brain freeze." In what some may perceive as a joke, this was no laughing matter. Everything stopped, her body went limp and she fell, hitting her head on a nightstand. The next thing she knew she was unconscious.

After a housekeeper found Phyllis and called 911, she was immediately transported to UCLA Medical Center. X-rays showed her top two vertebrae broken. If the bones were not carefully and properly fixed, it could have easily led to complete paralysis.

"I couldn't tell you a thing about it, my son was in charge of all that, but at one hospital, they had no one to operate and I just lay there for two days and I really don't know what happened," remembered Phyllis, who was unconscious for much of her 13-day stay in the hospital.

After UCLA, she was then transferred to Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles where she was treated by the world-renowned spine surgeon and Beverly Hills resident Carl Lauryssen, M.D., who she was referred to by a friend who had a tumor removed from her spine by the doctor.

"Dr.Lauryssen realizes that you're just not a piece of meat and that you're a human being with emotions, feelings, fears and he treats you in that way-- in a caring manner," Phyllis said. "There isn't a cold bone in his body. He's a warm human being. Right away, you trust him because of his attitude. Without knowing his very interesting background, I just fell in love with him and trusted him. God knows he was the right doctor for me."

During the operation, which involved motion preservation and minimal invasion, Phyllis' heart stopped several times, but despite it all, it just wasn't her time to go. Her pacemaker started up her heart each time and kept it beating.

"As a neurosurgeon, we deal with fairly complex and high-risk situations. A millimeter can make a difference-- a stroke one way or another way could leave someone completely paralyzed," Lauryssen said. "It's stressful; you don't want to be known as the doctor that was responsible for her having a bad outcome. There's certain things in life that you can't control, but there was a certain drive in all of us. She's a fighter and she had so much to give so it wasn't her time to go."

At 88-years-old, Phyllis faced several challenges during her operation. Things were very "touch and go," she said.

"She is exceedingly frail from a surgical point-of-view," said Laureyssen, who has also been the neurosurgeon for the St. Louis Rams football team for 10 years now. "She's very skinny and fragile. Obviously, she's not young anymore. Because of her age, she has an element of mild heart disease. When you stress a heart at her age, it can be pushed over the edge."

Throughout the hospital stay, flowers poured into her hospital room, leaving the room overflowing with orchids, roses, you name it. Well-wishers included celebrities such as Delores Hope, Reba McIntyre, Debbie Reynolds, and fellow comedians Red Buttons and Roseanne Barr, and Phyllis' beau, Bruce Nelson.

"You should have seen the flowers. It was like somebody had died," Phyllis said. "I was totally covered with flowers. That made me feel lovely. I'm just crazy about flowers and I felt like a queen. It all helped."

After having to wear a neck brace for two months, Phyllis has now fully-recovered and is able to continue with her busy, eventful life.

"I'm very grateful she did as well as she did," Laureyssen said. "By three months you can see how someone's healed on a CAT scan. She's healed faster than someone a third her age."

Although she retired from stand-up and traveling in 2002, her art career and continuous flow of events keep her terribly busy. In one day last week she had voice-over work at a studio for the film "Shrek 3" as Casper the Friendly Ghost, an event for the producer of the musical called "Menopause: The Musical" and a dinner-date with friends.

"You see, I've got a life going," Phyllis said. "My career just keeps going along. It's absolutely wonderful. This has left me with nothing but a stiff neck. In other words, I can't twist my head like an owl. I have some mobility and I'm very grateful for it and I lead a very, very active life. So I would say it's a second chance [in life]."

At her age, Phyllis' only plans are to get up every morning.

"That's a big deal," she said lightly.

This Thanksgiving, she is thankful for Dr. Lauryssen and having at least 12 members of her extended family, including four grandsons, in attendance for Thanksgiving dinner.

"I'm very thankful, I have so much to be thankful for, especially for Dr. Laurysson," Phyllis said. "I mean, he literally saved my life and gave me a whole new life back."


Thanksgiving has historically been a day when all express gratitude for things they have usually taken for granted-- life itself. This year, these people will celebrate life and the love and support of not only their friends and family, but their doctors who saved their lives.

"I am grateful for having heard about Dr. Burzynski and going to him and the love and support of my family and friends. I'm grateful that I have made it to the other side so I can marry the beautiful man I want to marry. Everything just really worked out," Jodi said.

Not only are patients giving thanks for the life-saving doctors who go beyond giving just medical treatment, but doctors are also giving thanks for their patients.

"I am thankful for many things-- my family, that my patients do well, my health-- and that's more than enough to be thankful for," Lauryssen said.

Phyllis and others are not only thankful on Thanksgiving Day, but every day. Phyllis recites a giving thanks mantra every day: "On this happy day I am thankful for my blessings and I pray for renewed belief in myself and others and hope this bond of love will expand to envelop the entire universe."  

GIVING THANKS / Michelle Zenarosa

bottom of page