It was a normal day for Judas Priest guitarist Richie Faulkner on September 21, 2021—until he almost died, that is. As he explains in a new interview with Guitar World, Faulker and the band were finishing their set—playing as direct support to Metallica at Kentucky’s Louder Than Life—with “Painkiller” when the pain and disorientation became more significant. He finished the song, collapsed into a chair immediately off stage and decided what to do next.

Little did he know, he was suffering from an aortic aneurysm and dissection—meaning that the large artery in his heart had quite literally ballooned and rupture—so Faulkner says he changed out of his stage clothes and planned to drive home to Nashville with his girlfriend, underscoring the point that he did not realize the severity of his condition.

“If I had known my heart had split open and I was bleeding into my chest cavity, I might have handled it a bit differently. But I had no idea. I got my jeans and T-shirt on. I didn’t think it was anything really serious and I didn’t want to make a fuss. I probably would have kept going if we did an encore.”

When Faulkner got to the hospital, he knew things were bad but even the doctors soon realized he had another thing coming.

“They knew I needed open-heart surgery and thought they were going to have to do a four or five hour operation. So they opened me up and saw I had an aortic aneurysm [a ballooning of the aorta, the main artery that carries blood from the heart through the chest and torso].

“It had ballooned and ruptured [causing blood to flood through the tear with such force the inner and middle layers of the aorta split]. So it was a lot more severe than what they anticipated, and the procedure took them 11 hours. I had to have four blood transfusions.”

The guitarist says that, during the surgery, doctors told his girlfriend, Mariah Lynch, to bring his family to the hospital. They weren’t sure if he was going to make it, he says.

“When my aorta dissected, the artery split all the way to my waist. And then there are the arteries that go up to your brain and it split and dissected all the way up there as well. So the whole thing just exploded. It’s really amazing they were able to bring me back.”

Faulker was saved by metal in more ways than one. Firstly, by physical metal—his heart was repaired with a mechanical valve and doctors used pieces of metal to repair other damage. When he asked how he was able to survive long enough to get to the hospital and survive an 11-hour surgery, Faulker said his doctors said it was the music.

“One question I had for the doctors was how I was able to go on for so long, because, yeah, once these things rupture you’ve usually got minutes and you’re gone. They think that maybe my adrenaline was so high because we were playing and that my heart was pumping hard enough and fast enough to keep me going long enough to get pumped up with more adrenaline and keep me going to the hospital. So I can literally say the power of heavy metal kept me alive long enough to save my life. I was literally, possibly saved by metal.”

Once he was past the worst part of the recovery—a surprisingly-short 10 days in the hospital, Faulker says his main concern was playing guitar again. He had lost some of his dexterity and ability, something he would recover via practice.

“It took a little while. I’d work at it and sometimes it would get a little bit easier, and that made me feel a bit better. And sometimes I was tired or just not focused and it was hard and I got frustrated. But I kept going and it got to a point where it kept getting easier. That gave me this sense of accomplishment and kept me going because I realized there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

As we saw 10 weeks after surgery, Faulker’s hard work paid off and he was back to ripping guitar solos. The guitarist says he wants to live a simple life, playing guitar and spending time with his family, but his perspective has been altered.

“I have more of an awareness now of what can happen to anyone at any time. That’s scary, but it puts things in perspective and makes you appreciate what you have.”