(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
Cindy Watts , USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee Published 3:00 p.m. CT Feb. 7, 2017 | Updated
Doctors told her to pull the plug.
Randy Travis had already flatlined, and now he was fighting an infection that specialists said he had virtually no chance of surviving. Even if he did, they told his wife, he'd likely be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Three years and three months later, Travis walked on stage last fall to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He stood throughout his induction and then stunned the room, singing “Amazing Grace.”
But the road back has been grueling, Travis told The Tennessean during his most in-depth interview since the 2013 stroke that nearly took his life. Travis' speech is halting, and he mostly maneuvers around his upscale Nashville condo via a wheelchair.
Asked whether he is happy, the singer paused for several seconds.
“Well … no,” he admitted, before another long pause. "Damaged."
But his wife, Mary, who defied doctor’s advice and fought to keep her husband alive, predicts he’ll sing again on Wednesday night during an all-star tribute to the seven-time Grammy Award-winning singer at Bridgestone Arena. Garth Brooks, Chris Young and Jamey Johnson are among the 30 artists who will pay tribute to Travis.
Travis isn’t so sure he’ll sing. Seated beside his wife, he leaned over, blocked his mouth with his hand and, grinning, delivered a drawn-out “no” when his wife suggested it.
Although Travis is still working to regain his conversation skills, he can sing — at least a few songs.
“There is a perfectionist in him that knows he’s not singing exactly like he used to that keeps him from enjoying it like I wish he would,” she said. “I know the world when they hear him, they can tell it’s Randy Travis, and the more he does it, the better it’s going to get.”
Travis changed the course of pop-leaning country music in 1986 with the release of his multiplatinum-selling “Storms of Life.” In the next three decades, he charted 16 No. 1 songs and his traditional country baritone rang on hits including “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper than a Holler” and “On the Other Hand.”
“I can’t find another artist in any format in the history of music that turned a format 180 degrees right back into itself, a mirror of what it was, and made it bigger than it was before,” said Brooks, who has counted Travis among his biggest influences.
Added Brad Paisley: “Randy showed up on the scene with a voice that was both retro and fresh, songs that were brilliant and charisma that could never be duplicated.”
'Hitting a brick wall'
Lightly stroking her husband’s hand with her thumb, Mary Travis recounted the days after the stroke, describing them as “hitting a brick wall at 100 miles per hour.”
On the Fourth of July 2013, Travis spent his usual three to four hours working out in his gym. July 5 he sat through an all-day business meeting. The next day, he complained of congestion in his airways and went to a nearby emergency room, where he was diagnosed with walking pneumonia.
Although Randy Travis is still working to regain his conversation skills more than three years after a stroke, he can sing. “There is a perfectionist in him that knows he’s not singing exactly like he used to that keeps him from enjoying it like I wish he would,” his wife, Mary Travis, said. “I know the world when they hear him, they can tell it’s Randy Travis, and the more he does it, the better it’s going to get.” (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
The morning of July 7, Travis told his wife: “I can’t breathe at all. It’s much worse.” When she took him back to the hospital, both of his lungs had filled with fluid. He was transferred to a larger hospital, where he flatlined. It took doctors three-and-a-half minutes to revive him. At 5:30 a.m. July 8, he was transferred to The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano and put on life support.
“I’m in a fog,” Mary Travis recalled. “You don’t really have time to think about how you’re feeling. You’re answering questions, you’re making decisions and scared to death.”
At The Heart Hospital, Dr. Michael Mack diagnosed Travis with viral cardiomyopathy, a virus that settles in the heart. The singer’s heart had started to shut down, which caused his lungs to accumulate fluid. (The Travises think the singer picked up the virus five weeks before on a sweltering movie set in a 50-year-old chemical, feed and seed store in Louisiana.)
It was not until he came out of a coma 48 hours later that doctors realized he had suffered a stroke. Reaction from the doctors was swift. Mary Travis tearfully recalled being told that lifesaving surgery would be required. And even with surgery, Travis had only a 1 to 2 percent chance of survival.
“At this point, the 1 to 2 percent chance is 100 percent chance over zero,” Mary Travis said. “I prayed hard, ‘God, please let me have him back, any way, shape or form.’ ”
After surgery, Travis spent nearly six months in hospitals in Texas and Tennessee. Of that time, he spent about six weeks in a coma, Mary Travis said. He had two brain surgeries, got pneumonia three times, was intubated seven times, had three tracheotomies and a feeding tube. While hospitalized in Nashville, Travis caught staph infections from hospital-borne bacteria and doctors spent two weeks telling his wife he was going to die.
Travis was in a coma state when she entered the room, took his hand and asked: “Do you want to keep fighting, baby?”
She said he squeezed her hand and a tear rolled down his cheek.
“I knew then he wasn’t ready to quit fighting,” she said. “I went back and told the doctors, ‘It’s not our choice to decide that. … And I suggest that everybody get on board and do everything they can do to save him.’ ”
Soon after, the Travises switched doctors. His new specialist put him on a more powerful antibiotic, and within three days Travis started to show improvement. Five days after that, the doctor told Mary Travis she could start planning her husband’s trip home. “Home” meant seven more weeks in Texas hospitals before she wheeled him out, a bag of laundry in his lap, just in time to spend Thanksgiving at their ranch in Tioga, Texas.
Randy Travis contracted viral cardiomyopathy and had a massive stroke in 2013. Now, with the love and support of his wife, Mary, he can walk, shower unassisted and get himself dressed.
When asked how it felt to leave, Travis flashed a wide smile, threw his hand up in the air and said, “Bye.”
Travis spent four hours a day in rehab for two-and-a-half years. He can now walk, shower unassisted and get himself dressed. At one point in the rehab, his wife says, Travis stopped wanting to go. And if she did get him there, he just shut down. They started venturing out into the community, having dinner with friends, going to concerts and making grocery store runs.
She said hope and her faith in God are what kept her pushing forward. For Travis, she thinks it was his music, which she said played constantly in his hospital room.
Travis remembers all of his song lyrics and can use his left hand to run the chords on his guitar neck. He’s still regaining use of his right arm and leg. He says it feels “good” to sing again.
Asked where he wants to be in his recovery five years from now, Travis smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“I think our goal for five years is to remain hopeful and keep our heads up high and not throw in the towel and be happy with wherever God has us,” Mary Travis said. “If it’s back up on that stage singing, hallelujah.”
Reach Cindy Watts at email@example.com or 615-664-2227 and on Twitter @CindyNWatts.
When he had a massive stroke more than three years ago, Randy Travis' wife, Mary, defied doctor’s advice and fought to keep her husband alive. Although his speech is halting, the singer can now walk, shower unassisted and get himself dressed. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)
If you go
What: 1 Night. 1 Place. 1 Time: A Heroes and Friends Tribute to Randy Travis featuring Garth Brooks, Chris Young, Jamey Johnson, Scotty McCreery, Josh Turner and more than 20 additional country singers.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Bridgestone Arena, 501 Broadway in Nashville
Tickets: $25 to $80 through Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Proceeds from the evening go to benefit the Randy Travis Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that raises money for stroke research and rehabilitation.