Katherine Scardino, CNN • Updated 28th June 2016
( CNN ) — In a rare public appearance, soul music legend Smokey Robinson opened up about his devastating brush with death last year while calling for a greater focus on vaccines at the American Society of Microbiology’s annual meeting
The 80-year-old singer, whose vocal chops earned him praise in the 1960s as one of Motown’s top recording artists, shared his recent brush with death and his call for better access to vaccinations when he received the American Society of Microbiology’s 2015 The Golden Beacon Award.
The award is given to people who have had “a significant impact on the community.”
“When I went to the hospital the other day for the really bad pain I had in my side,” Robinson said, “my doctor said he had never seen somebody taken through the staff and go as far as we took. He had never seen anybody so close to death.
“This is what I’m trying to get across: Vaccines save lives.”
During the brief speech, Robinson also promoted getting the MMR — or measles, mumps and rubella — vaccine.
“The second thing I’d like to say is that people shouldn’t panic or they shouldn’t feel afraid about getting the vaccinations,” he said. “In the case of measles, particularly, a lot of doctors aren’t delivering the vaccines to the correct parts of the body.
“So, when my doctor called me and said, ‘I’m really concerned. You have a strong headache, you’re nauseous, you’re sensitive to light,’ and I said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m sure you do. Do you think you have measles?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I think I do.’ He said, ‘All right, we’ll get you a strong pain reliever and an aspirin. If you’re not feeling well in the morning and you’ve been sick or the medications are giving you cramps, you might want to take this for a long time.
“He said, ‘Then come back in about three days because the neurological symptoms will have started coming and we don’t know the extent of them.’
“I said, ‘OK. Don’t panic.’ He said, ‘This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to have two seizures and then you’re going to have a bad headache.’ And I said, ‘OK, I don’t know about that.”
At first Robinson didn’t know if he had a stroke. His headache was nothing out of the ordinary, other than that the pain was more intense.
“This happened,” he said. “It was like a domino effect and I can still see what the doctor said to me.”
Robinson wasn’t happy about the diagnosis.
“But I got the (scans), did what they said and they said, ‘OK, you’ve had a hemorrhagic stroke.’ All right, it was probably a big headache. I remember my doctor said, ‘We’re going to throw this away,’ and then I looked at my dad and I said, ‘Dad, I have brain damage.’
“I had severe damage to my brain — total brain damage — and I wasn’t going to die. He was like, ‘We’ll just put you on the shelf and we’ll say we did everything we could with you.’
“The next day, all my troubles started. The seizures started. I had problems with speech. I couldn’t walk.”
Robinson vowed that he would get better and that his relationship with doctors wouldn’t change.
“I spent the next two days by myself in a dark room,” he said. “I was so depressed. I looked at the doctors and I said, ‘God, you know how much they love me.’
“But I was so depressed and so helpless. I was thinking, ‘They told me they’ll be back in two days. I’m at the brink of death.’ “
The following day the seizures stopped and the doctor said, “I don’t care where you go. I don’t care where you live. They know you’re going to be with us forever. They don’t have a choice.’
“That’s when I realized something good is going to happen.”