TIOGA, Texas – For a few minutes, it was the last night of country & western legend Randy Travis’ life.
Suffocating from his fluid-filled lungs and his heart failing, Travis flatlined. He was put on life support and into an induced coma. When he was brought back, doctors found that sometime between dying and waking he suffered a stroke.
His wife was told he probably wouldn’t survive and if he did he’d be bedridden and in and out of hospitals for what was left of his life.
“Honey, you have to let me know you want to keep fighting,” Mary said at his bedside. She saw a tear slide down his face and he squeezed her hand and knew then that Randy would battle back. “He and God had other plans. His faith got him through what he got through. When a lot of people gave up on him he didn’t give up on himself.”
Now Randy, 57, is on a marathon road to recovery that has lasted nearly four years, so far.
He struggled to relearn how to walk and to regain use of the right side of his body. The blood clot had lodged in the part of his brain that controls those muscles and dominates the use of language.
The words he’d strung into song -- resulting in 25 million records sold, 22 No. 1 hits and eight Grammy Awards -- no longer can make it from his brain to his lips because of a disorder called aphasia. It’s caused by brain trauma and it makes using words a struggle.
“If he could just talk to me one more time and tell me the stories that must be going through his mind,” said Mary.
While Randy perceptively understands what he hears, his own voice has been more difficult to find. Usually he speaks singular words and says a simple “yup” and “nope.” He is skilled enough with one-word conversation that he can tell jokes.
The disorder also impacts the written word, although just recently, he read “Nashville” off a road sign as he and his wife, Mary, drove into town for a tribute concert in his honor.
Music has come back to him more easily. While he can’t strum the notes on his guitar with his weaker right hand – also affected by the stroke -- the music is so ingrained in him that he can chord every song on his guitar.
Though he can’t speak in a full sentence, he can mouth every single word to thousands of songs. “Amazing Grace” has become his personal anthem, and he can sing those verses despite the aphasia. He sang it publicly for the first time in October when he accepted his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, stunning the audience and his fellow artists.
It was a bright moment among many struggles since that fateful day, July 7, 2013.
Randy’s fight to survive includes three tracheotomies, 38 IVs and numerous intubations. He was fed through a tube and dropped to less than 100 pounds. He had emergency brain surgery, and half of his scalp was removed and stored in his abdomen to keep the skin alive.
And there were infections – many frightening, deadly infections, including staph, pseudomonas, serratia and three bouts of pneumonia.
“It was just one thing after another that you never thought you’d live through or learn about,” said Mary. “It was a crash course for me. We were going through life at 100 miles per hour and hit a brick wall.”
Randy was listed for a heart transplant, but his heart healed “by the grace of God,” Mary said. Doctors told the couple that it had likely failed because of a virus that caused dilated cardiomyopathy.(link opens in new window)
Piecing together how that could have happened, Mary believes it occurred during filming of the movie “Christmas on the Bayou” a few weeks earlier. Travis had filmed during hot, humid days in an old feed store in Opelousas, Louisiana, possibly breathing in molds and spores.
With his heart back, Randy did rehabilitation more than four hours a day in a blur of setbacks and success. The crushing fear of immediate death from the past few days was replaced by a constant fear of a slower one over the next six months.
“Giant baby steps” punctuated his recovery, said Mary.
Today, Randy is taking a break from the relentlessness of therapy and is spending his days at his ranch with his wife, dogs, horses and cattle. He and Mary attend fellow artists’ concerts, so he can hear the music he loves and be with his contemporaries.
He’s also now putting his energy and his fame to raise awareness and money for stroke research. He’s “passing out hope” by showing what is possible to other stroke patients, said Mary. He’s appeared before the Tennessee legislators and at a recent tribute concert in Nashville given in his honor.
And on March 25, he’ll make a guest appearance at a BeautyKind Unites: A Concert for Causes(link opens in new window) at AT&T Stadium near Dallas, where the Cowboys play. The event will help raise money for the American Heart Association, River Ranch Randy Travis Fund and other charitable organizations.
Randy, who once was given no hope and no chance of survival, wants people to know that there is still life after stroke. The point is to show “stroke victims they don’t have to be victims,” said Mary. “Knowing that our Maker made us once, He can heal us. He can recreate us. He is our strength. And with ‘The Storms of Life,’ we are given silver linings.”