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Then Death Blinked

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IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN SOMEWHAT OF A shock to hear that big, powerful, pathos-filled voice come out of tiny, frail Tammy Wynette, country’s 5’3″ Queen of Heartbreak. But it was even more startling to see Wynette on Jan. 15 performing with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra—just two days out of the hospital after a nightmarish ordeal that brought her dangerously close to death.

She sounded confident at first, belting out “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” But she missed the high notes in “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “I Still Believe in Fairy Tales,” then stopped the performance after 25 minutes without even attempting her signature hit, “Stand By Your Man.” “I always tell people I’m not the best, I’m just the loudest,” she said before leaving the stage to a standing ovation from the audience of 3,500 at Tucson’s Convention Center Arena. “But tonight I don’t even have the volume.”

That she could sing at all was a surprise to many. Just three weeks earlier, Wynette’s family had gathered for a grim vigil at her hospital bedside in Nashville as she fought a last-ditch battle with a dangerous liver ailment. “I didn’t realize how sick I was,” says Wynette, who remained hospitalized until just two days before flying to Tucson to fulfill the long-scheduled concert date. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t supposed to make it ’til after I did make it.”

Plagued throughout her life by ill health, Wynette, 51, had endured more than 17 major surgeries—including 14 stomach and intestinal operations—before the night of Monday, Dec. 27, when she complained of stomach pains after returning home from a recording session. “I thought by going to bed and resting, it would go away,” she says. But during the night, she awoke several times in pain. “About four o’clock she started complaining she was having problems breathing,” says her manager, George Richey, 58, whom Wynette wed in 1978 after four previous marriages, including a tumultuous and sometimes violent five years with singing partner George Jones. “I just got her in the car and took her to the hospital. I had no reason to think it was life-threatening.”

While doctors at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital attempted to determine the source of Wynette’s pain, Richey sat at her bedside watching an automatic blood-pressure monitor. Around 6 p.m., he says, “I looked up and [the monitor] read 42 over 16.” Realizing it was dangerously below the normal 120/80 reading, Richey alerted a nurse who helped him tilt Wynette’s bed to increase blood flow to her brain. Doctors moved her to intensive care and hooked her to life-support systems, including a ventilator air tube inserted into her throat. “They put her on the ventilator to protect the brain, to be sure she had an oxygen supply,” Richey says. “Had they not done that…she would have been brain-damaged.”

Wynette says the last thing she remembers before losing consciousness was seeing her plummeting blood-pressure reading. “I told Richey, ‘I’m getting frightened,’ ” she says. “I just felt like I was floating. My hands and my feet got numb. I just kind of floated away.”

After consulting with a Pittsburgh specialist, who had previously treated Wynette for a bile-duct infection in her liver, her Nashville doctors determined the infection was the source of potentially fatal toxins seeping into her bloodstream. That night, a doctor told Richey that Tammy had a 30 percent chance of recovery. “I said, ‘What are you saying to me?’ ” Richey remembers. ” ‘I’m saying to you, your wife may likely die.’ ”

Richey heard the same dire prognosis three times that week. “As late as Thursday night, after they had done [a procedure to drain the infection], the doctor said, ‘I think we’re still too late to save her,’ ” Richey says. But thanks to the procedure, and massive doses of antibiotics, “by Friday morning she had started to inch toward improvement.”

As Wynette’s large family, including her four daughters and Richey’s two children by a previous marriage, began arriving at the hospital, Richey called some close friends, including Naomi Judd, Billy Sherrill (the famed producer who discovered Wynette in 1967) and George Jones and his wife, Nancy, to join the vigil. “I thought it would cheer her up,” Richey says. “But I was a little bit concerned that when she saw them, she’d wonder, ‘Do they think I’m dying?’ ” Says Tammy: “When I came around on Sunday, my girls were there, and I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘What a pretty picture.’ Then I thought, ‘What are they doing here?’ ”

In the best of times, it would have been a rare family reunion. Once estranged from her eldest daughters, Wynette has admitted that her obsession with her career and marital and health problems, including a long addiction to prescribed drugs, distracted her from parenting. “They have such strong feelings, due to scars I left unintentionally,” Wynette said of her daughters in 1990. “Never physical abuse. God, no. Only mental.”

Though grateful that her children rallied round her, Wynette regrets “putting my family through what I put them through. They were so upset, more so than me. I didn’t realize what was happening; they did.”

Richey says the family was buoyed during the ordeal by calls from many friends, including Wynette’s old beau Burt Reynolds; Loretta Lynn, two of whose daughters gave blood for Wynette’s transfusions; Dolly Parton; and Elton John, Aaron Neville and Smokey Robinson, who have each recorded duets with Wynette for her next, as-yet-untitled album, which she was working on when she fell ill.

After subsequent surgery in Pittsburgh days before the Tucson show, Wynette is now recuperating at home in Nashville. Planning to return to the studio to complete the album by March, she hopes to hit the road again—and do a makeup date with the Tucson Symphony next year. Meanwhile she’s resting and taking stock.

“I’ve thought about how easy it would have been for me to just slip away,” she says. “I would have died in my sleep. It’s really a scary feeling to think how quick and how easily it could have all been over.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tucson