Randy Travis: The Long Journey Back From His Near-Death Experience

Randy Travis: The Long Journey Back From His Near-Death Experience

Originally published in the Aug. 18, 2014 issue of Country Weekly magazine. 

None of us is promised tomorrow. We plan and prepare like it’s going to happen, but it can all change in a moment. That’s what happened to Randy Travis in July 2013, when a series of escalating health issues sent him to the very edge of mortality. One year later, he’s alive and walking the long road to recovery.

Randy’s fiancé, Mary Davis, remembers the sequence of events vividly. The award-winning singer had worked out for three hours the day before meetings at their home with visitors from Nashville. Randy was preparing to leave on a Canadian tour. “He wasn’t feeling well so I took him to a local ER doctor and they said he had walking pneumonia and they sent him home with some nebulizer and breathing [medications],” she recalls. “Sunday, we went back because he wasn’t able to breathe at all and that’s pretty much where everything began.”

Doctors discovered he had a viral cardiomyopathy stemming from a respiratory infection. As best anyone could figure later on, the infection that set off the whole chain of events might have something airborne that Randy caught on a hot, dusty movie set in Louisiana a couple weeks before the trouble began.

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As ER doctors were treating his respiratory issues, Randy’s heart stopped and flat-lined. He was comatose and on an oxygenation treatment when they flew him to Nashville, where they discovered he had in fact suffered a stroke. Doctors immediately had to perform brain surgery, giving Randy slim (1 to 2 percent, according to Mary) odds of surviving. “They did the brain surgery and Randy, just the way Randy does things, made it through it,” she says, tearfully, searching for the words. “He’s just a miracle.”

He’s more of a miracle than most realize. The news that reached the fans was at times unremittingly bleak, and it seems that is exactly how it was in the hospital. Mary had to face the tough choice of whether to take Randy off life support or keep fighting. “A number of the doctors told me I should go ahead and pull the plug because he wasn’t going to make it through,” she recalls. “I was a little angry because I didn’t feel like they’d given him a fighting chance and I knew there was nothing but fight in Randy Travis.”

Mary walked in Randy’s room where he, still in a coma, was resting. “I sat down beside his bed and I held his hand and I said, ‘Honey, you gotta let me know if you wanna keep fighting.’ He squeezed my hand and a tear fell off the side of his face,” she says. “I walked back to the room where the doctors were and I said, ‘Y’all better give it everything you’ve got because we’re not quitting. I believe that our God is bigger than what we think we can do.”

So fight they did. Randy survived the operation and was officially discharged from the hospital July 31. Assorted subsequent hospital stays lasted through November, delaying the start of a more intense, focused therapy regimen. “We go to outpatient therapy five days a week here in Denton, 30-45 minutes from home. Then we come home and do some more of it,” Mary says, sounding resigned. “They keep reminding us this is his eight-hour-a-day job now. Randy takes it with a smile, and off we go.”

For his part, Randy seems to have committed fully to his therapy program, giving it everything he has. His strong faith has played an important role as well. “Every day he greets with a big ole smile, that Randy Travis infections smile of his. It lets me know all is well with the world,” Mary reveals. “When they ask him to do 10 of whatever at therapy, he’ll do 20. If I put him on the bicycle here at home and say, ‘Do 20 minutes,’ he’ll do 30 or 45.”

From that fierce determination has come increased mobility for Randy, who has made big strides in the relatively short seven months that he has been in therapy. “Each day brings a positive change. He understands everything going on and communicates well,” explains Mary. “In the last eight months, he’s gone from being bedridden to walking with a cane and sometimes even without it. He’s ridden his horse, Preacher. Yesterday, we went out in the pastures to check the fence lines.”

One of the complications of Randy’s stroke was in the form of speech, initially rendering the beloved star unable to talk or sing his songs. While he has yet to return to singing, Randy is still making big steps in communication and speech. “We’re in the phrases stage now so we’ve come a long way,” Mary explains, noting that fluid conversation is still a challenge. “The music, the melodies, the chords and the words are all there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together again.”

It can be a frustrating experience for victims of stroke, who can often fully understand the speech of others but have trouble communicating what they want to say. Randy is learning both verbal and nonverbal ways to express himself, and Mary seems confident that one day he will be fully healed. “The brain is rewiring and learning again new pathways. It takes time,” Mary says. “The human body is such an unexplainable piece of machinery that God made that we can’t recreate. It takes its own time. I believe that he will get there.”

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As one of the most important figures in the last 30 years of country music history, Randy has made friends of his fellow stars and amassed a legion of fans as well. Many of those fellow stars have reached out and visited with Randy through the ordeal. “You find friends and support you never knew or thought you had and I guess some support you thought you had that you don’t have,” Mary notes. “It’s an interesting scenario when things go south for you a bit.”

Mary rattles off names like Jamey Johnson, Joe Nichols, Zac Brown, the Oak Ridge Boys and Josh Turner as artists who have checked in, adding that family and close friends have been a critical part of the healing process for Randy. “We couldn’t do without that because that keeps us going,” she says. “There’s, no doubt, daily challenges—physically, emotionally, financially and everything else—but with that incredible support we make it through. Each day adds another link to his independence and one day we believe he’ll be whole again.”

Randy has begun making the occasional public appearance with Mary at his side, include a Neal McCoy benefit event and the widely-covered Dolly Parton show in June. Mary says they’ve also seen George Strait, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in recent months. She wants him to hear the music in hopes that he’ll soon be able to sing and perform.

“There’s nothing more he would rather do than to be back on that stage,” Mary says. “That’s what he loved to do more than anything. Back on that stage, to share his incredible journey that he’s been through. I know he wants to do that in person. That’s certainly his prayer and his goal. I’m just here to support that and do everything we can.”

The fans have been there with support too, and both Mary and Randy are extremely grateful for the outpouring of love. “We’ve gotten boxes and boxes of letters of encouragement from fans,” she says. “When I read him his fan mail, he smiles and sometimes sheds a tear because of the sweet, sweet stories. Just thinking about some of them, it’s kind of bringing a tear to my eye right now because it’s just amazing,” she pauses, her voice catching, “that he can touch so many lives.”

Fans looking for new music can check out the newly-released collection Influence Vol. 2: The Man I Am.

For Mary’s part, she is resolved to let things progress and resolve naturally. “It’s an honor to be able to walk beside him on this journey,” she says. “I feel special because of that. It’s a bit different than we had planned, but the landscape is still beautiful. And we’re not gonna stop ‘til we get where we’re going!”

Those harrowing days of Randy’s stay in the hospital are in the past, but they caused a shift in perspective for both him and Mary. It’s one of those thing that is easy to take for granted, until being faced with unfathomable loss. “Every day is special. And we’ve sure gotten a glimpse of how precious life is and how fast it can change and how fast it can be taken away,” Mary says. “When we do get to the other side of it, he’ll have a wonderful testimony.” [Randy and Mary got married on March 21, 2015]

And the fans will no doubt be ready to hear it.

New Randy Travis Recordings

Though the future of Randy’s recording career remains somewhat up in the air for now, he’s left us with an incredible body of work to enjoy. On Aug. 19, fans can check out Randy’s Influence Vol. 2: The Man I Am, a follow-up to his 2013 edition that paid tribute to some of the singer’s favorite artists.

For this new edition, Randy gave his renditions of Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” and Vern Gosdin’s “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” among others. Also included is “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum,” a touching original that Randy recorded as a tribute to his friend George Jones.

Influence Vol. 2: The Man I Am

  1. I’m Moving On
  2. Set ‘Em Up Joe
  3. Are the Good Times Really Over?
  4. Nearly Lose Your Mind
  5. There I’ve Said It Again
  6. That’s the Way Love Goes
  7. Sunday Morning Coming Down
  8. Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me
  9. Mind Your Own Business
  10. Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line
  11. For the Good Times
  12. California Blues
  13. Tonight I’m Playing Possum (Solo Version)

Randy courtesy Webster PR; Randy & Miranda by Rick Diamond/EB Media; Randy & Neal courtesy Neal McCoy Twitter; Randy & Dolly and Randy & Jamey courtesy Webster PR

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