July 25, 2018 03:55 PM

Eric Church is opening up about a secret health crisis that nearly took his life last summer.

The 41-year-old country superstar gave a wide-ranging interview for Rolling Stone‘s August cover story — revealing for the first time that he had to undergo emergency surgery for a blood clot in his chest last year.

The complication was caused by a birth defect, which left Church’s topmost rib too close to his collarbone. The pressure between the two caused thoracic outlet syndrome, a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves are compressed.

“There’s a major vein that runs through there, and when I would raise my arm, it would pinch it and damage the vein,” Church explained. “The clot was where it tried to heal. But it kept backing up, backing up. And like any clot, when you get enough pressure, it’s gonna blow.”

A week after his first operation, Church had to have his top rib removed. He spent months in physical therapy and rehab, before returning to his tour last September.

“It was an interesting summer,” the musician joked.

Eric Church
Kevin Winter/ACM2015/Getty

Despite the unexpected surgery and recovery time, Church explained that the discovery of his health issue happened just in time.

He started feeling symptoms when was on tour, his hands tingling. “I just associated it with nerves,” he said. “I didn’t think it was anything.”

It got worse in June, when Church was at his North Carolina summer home. “I was watching the College World Series and texting about golf,” he recalled. “And [my left hand] was not responding like it should.” A closer examination of his arm showed it was swollen. “So I peeled my shirt off and went in the bathroom, and my arm was noticeably red and enlarged.”

Church’s instinct was that it was thrombosis, a clotting of the blood that can be associated with airplane travel. Googling it, he realize he had “five out of five symptoms.”

With wife Katherine in Nashville, Church drove himself to the emergency room (a nanny watched sons Tennessee Hawkins, 3, and Boone McCoy, 6). At the hospital, he was told he needed an ultrasound that was at another facility, 25 minutes away. So back in the car (this time with an IV in his arm) Church went.

Eric Church
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

It was nearly 5 a.m. by the time he arrived, and the worst-case scenario was rushing through his head.

“I was thinking about my family and kids, and how I wanted to make it back home,” he said. “But I was also thinking about the tour, and what we went through. I looked back and I honestly felt pretty satisfied that I couldn’t have given another thing.”

When he finally got the diagnosis, Church was told he’d need surgery immediately. “I said, ‘Can it kill me?’ And he said, ‘Today,’ ” Church remembered. “And I said, ‘I need to make a phone call.’ “

Eventually, Church was admitted to Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina — yet another long trek from where he was. With his clot in danger of being released by helicopter vibrations and air pressure, Church was given blood thinners and whisked to an ambulance for transport.

The singer was awake for 36 hours by the time surgery began.

“They took me into the ICU and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go to bed, get up in the morning and do this thing,’ ” he said. “But when I walk in the room, the surgical team is there and the [doctor’s] in scrubs. He says, ‘We’re gonna go now.’ That was really when it hit me. To them, I was going to die.”

RELATED: Eric Church Returns to the Stage a Week After Brother’s Death for Emotional Tribute: ‘I Need This’

Joe Pugliese for Rolling Stone

Church survived, only to experience loss soon thereafter. Brother Brandon died on June 29 in North Carolina, due to an unknown cause. He was 36.

Church’s interview with Rolling Stone took place before Brandon’s death, but there was another loss on his mind: those of the 58 people who were killed when a gunman opened fire at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas in October 2017 — the country concert Church had opened two days earlier.

“It got dark for me for a while,” he said of his time after the tragedy, which took the lives of many of his fans and also left nearly 800 people injured. “I went through a period, a funk, for six months at least. I had anger. I’ve still got anger. Something broke in me that night, and it still hasn’t healed. There’s a part of me that hopes it haunts me forever.”

RELATED: Eric Church Honors Las Vegas Shooting Victims with Empty Seats and a Tearful Tribute: ‘Those Were My People’

Since then, Church, who is a gun owner himself and a self-proclaimed supporter of the Second Amendment, said that his views on the subject of gun rights have changed “a little.” He now supports reforms like improving background checks, banning bump stocks. He also blames the National Rifle Association for the gun-show loophole.

“Nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition and we don’t know about it,” he said. “Nobody should have 21 AKs and 10,000 rounds of ammunition and we don’t know who they are. Something’s gotta be done so that a person can’t have an armory and pin down a Las Vegas SWAT team for six minutes. That’s f—ed up.”

Eric Church
Mike Coppola/Getty

He continued, “As a gun guy, the number of rounds [the shooter] fired was un-f—ing-believable to me. I saw a video on YouTube from the police officer’s vest cam, and it sounded like an army was up there. I don’t think our forefathers ever thought the right to bear arms was that.”

Is he worried about blowback from fans for expressing his views? “I don’t care,” Church said. “Right’s right and wrong’s wrong. I don’t understand why we have to fear a group [like the NRA]. It’s asinine. Why can’t we come together and solve one part of this? Start with the bump stocks and the gun shows. Shut a couple of these down. I do think that will matter a little bit. I think it will save some lives.”

Desperate Man, Church’s new album, is due in October.

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