June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

On the eve of his 45th birthday on April 9, country singer Hal Ketchum was hanging tough. He had kicked a two-decade addiction to booze and drugs several months earlier, and on Valentine’s Day he had married his third wife, makeup artist Gina Pacconi, 31. Meanwhile, he was looking forward to the May release of I Saw the Light, his first album since 1994. But that birthday morning, he woke up with a stiff neck. Soon his left arm was numb. A few days later, his body was racked with pain. Barely mobile, he was rushed to the emergency room, where “they poked, prodded and stuck every needle in me for four days,” he says.

Thinking he might have multiple sclerosis (MS), Ketchum’s doctor discharged him after reducing swelling in his spinal cord with cortisone injections. The next evening, Ketchum says, “I felt my jawline go. And then my hearing went.” Back at the hospital, his illness was finally diagnosed as myelitis, an inflammatory condition that strikes just a few hundred Americans each year. It attacks the spinal cord, often causing short-term paralysis and sometimes permanent weakness. “It’s possible to regain manual dexterity,” says Dr. Robert Daroff, a neurologist at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, “but recovery may not be 100 percent.”

Ketchum’s response: “I went right into combat.” Thanks to physical therapy three times a week, he appears to be regaining use of his limbs. While his doctor predicts a full recovery, Ketchum may find playing guitar difficult. Still, he and Gina count their blessings. “Had he not been sober, I think this would have killed him,” says Gina.

The oldest of three children born in Greenwich, N.Y., to Frank, a plant manager for USA Today, and Janet, a homemaker, Ketchum always had his share of sorrows to drown. His mother, who died in 1986, suffered from MS. When he was 9, her condition had deteriorated so much that he became a surrogate mom of sorts to his siblings. At 15, Ketchum had his first drink when he and his pals guzzled a bottle of cheap wine during a school dance.

By the time he moved on to marijuana in his early 20s, he had bypassed college to work as a carpenter’s apprentice and had married his first wife. (They divorced in 1989 after 18 years and two children: Sarah, now 23, and Graham, 20, both students at Texas colleges.) Inspired by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, Ketchum began writing songs and moved to San Antonio in 1979.

After nine years on the area bar-band circuit, he was signed by Curb Records. Ketchum’s 1991 debut, the country album Past the Point of Rescue, promptly went gold. But success fueled his demons. “I took pride in having a lumberjack’s constitution,” he says. “My drug of choice became anything.” Intervention attempts by friends, including his longtime manager Mike Crowley, failed. “He told me, ‘You don’t understand,’ ” says Crowley. ” ‘I’m the minister of chaos.’ ” Last December, Ketchum decided to get clean after waking up with “a gram of cocaine in each pocket,” he says. “I went to the toilet and dumped them. I was wanting to get straight because I was doing a lot of people a disservice.”

Including Pacconi, whom Ketchum met backstage at a Ricky Skaggs concert in 1996. Since entering the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs last December for a 30-day stint, Ketchum hasn’t fallen off the wagon, he says. But he does take other tumbles. “I’ll wake up and forget that I’m sick for a second,” he says. “Then reality returns when I fall off the bed.” Despite his precarious balance, he vows that business, which includes a planned summer tour, will go on as usual. “I can sit in a chair and sing well enough,” he says. “I’m a fortunate man.”

Jeremy Helligar

Bob Stewart in Austin

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