Dodging death: Randy Traeger faces his toughest opponent

October 2017 Posted in Community, School, Sports

coach traeger OTLBy Steve Ritchie

After years of serious health issues, Randy Traeger knew in early June that he was just about out of time. He had already been on the liver transplant list for 30 months, and he could sense that his body was giving out. His will to keep going was faltering, too.

“I knew I was bad,” Traeger said. “I was just done.”

Among the regular procedures he was going through was “getting tapped” weekly to remove the excess fluid buildup left by the liver’s dysfunction. The procedure removed 25 lbs of his body weight in 45 minutes, and left him feeling wasted.

Then came the call from OHSU that they had been praying for. A liver had been donated, and Randy would be the recipient.

Randy and his wife, Lynnette, waited at OHSU for the liver to arrive from Boise. It was nearly midnight and the pre-op room was deserted. They tried to envision how the liver would arrive from the airport – by helicopter perhaps?
No, they were told. It would come
by car from PDX.

The transplant was a success. The new liver was named “Spud,” since it had come from Idaho. After examining the removed liver, doctors told Traeger he would have been dead within two weeks without the transplant. His intuition had been correct.

Even before his rehab started, Traeger received some shockingly bad news. The liver donor, a man who died from an aneurism, had undergone an autopsy, which revealed a tumor behind the blood clot. A biopsy confirmed the tumor was cancerous.

This meant that the cancer could have already spread to his other organs, including the liver. There was no way to know for sure, but the medical team said there was a strong likelihood the cancer would soon appear in Traeger’s body.
The Traegers agreed to do a “re-transplant,” and Randy was back
on the transplant list.

But the very next day there was more bad news. The second transplant would not take place. There was something odd-looking on Randy’s lymph nodes. If it was cancer, he would not qualify to receive a donated liver.

“They went through this whole deal with pathology to try and figure out whether it was cancer, or not,” Traeger said. “The OHSU guy could not identify whether it was cancer. No one they knew could either. Ultimately, they talked to one of the top cancer guys in the world and he said, ‘I don’t know what it is but I don’t think it is cancer. It’s something really weird but it’s not cancer.’ Based on that (opinion), they came back and said, ‘OK, it’s not cancer, do you still want to go ahead?’

“You go this whole time on the transplant list, then you get a transplant, and then they tell you you’ve got cancer. And then you’ve got to wait four or five weeks, and I’ve got this liver in me that could be killing me.”

The best option was to get Spud out and put a new one in.

Randy Traeger’s health problems started in September of 2012 with an excruciatingly painful infection of the pelvic bone. It was so serious and persistent that physicians had to use nine different antibiotics and put a PIC line into his heart. Eventually, surgery was needed to combat the infection.

Later, when symptoms from his poorly-functioning liver started to appear, the Traegers assumed that these were lingering issues from the infection. They had no idea there was an entirely new problem.

“Once, in the middle of the night, Lynnette found me on the kitchen floor looking up at the ceiling talking to a light bulb. And the light bulb was talking back to me. They took me to the hospital and that’s when the new diagnosis began to take shape.”

The severe confusion he was experiencing resulted from extremely high ammonia levels in his body. The condition was so serious it could easily have killed him.

“When people hear that it is a liver problem, they assume it is connected to alcoholism because that is so common. When people said that to me, I said, ‘well if I knew I was going to end up like this, I probably would have drank more.’”

In fact, Traeger suffered from non-alcoholic steatohepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver, as well as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, chronic stage III kidney disease, splenomegaly, esophageal varices and severe ascites.

“Chief “– the nickname for the new liver to replace Spud – came from Seattle. At 1 a.m. on July 20 – the birthday of Randy’s deceased sister Kimmy who suffered from Rett’s Syndrome – he was wheeled into the operating room. Lynnette got phone calls every two hours to update progress, and by 7:30 a.m. the doctor called to say Chief was in and they were stitching her husband up. The transplant had gone flawlessly.

Lynnette brought Randy home on July 24, and on the 25th their daughter Krystal and husband Ryan had twin grandsons, Easton and Everett. Life continues.

“The people up there (at OHSU) are fantastic,” Traeger said. “The nurses, the surgeons, the doctors… the last words they used for me were ‘a miracle’ because of the two livers in a month. A poster child because I healed up so fast after the second surgery. The first liver improved my health so I healed up faster the
second time.”

The two transplants, treatments, drugs, and hospital stays were not something the Traegers could have paid for themselves. In fact, they were broke even before the medical expenses totaling millions began to pile up.

Success in business – Traeger Grills – had allowed them to support seven children, and give hundreds of thousands to charity, but, after selling the business in 2007, they were left with next to nothing when the economy fell apart. They couldn’t sell the homes they owned, and Randy was unable to get a job.

In hindsight, this was a blessing. “Even if I had had money (at that point), it would have been gone,” he said. “As it was, we were wiped out before the medical expenses (were incurred).

“We started working with social workers, the Oregon Health Plan, disability and Medicaid. We went through that whole confusing process and it all came together.”

He ended up getting on disability and OHP, as their income at that point was zero.

Traeger said that, as difficult as his life has been in recent years, he considers it “a great journey.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I attribute much of my positive outcome to my family and especially Lynnette.  My high school sweetheart, mother of our seven children, and wife of over 38 years.  I figure she logged over 17,000 miles driving me to hospitals and doctors.  She administered all my drugs and injections at home. She was with me every minute of every day taking care of me.

“It’s a lot of prayers. Literally, thousands of people were praying for me. I don’t know how people who don’t have a strong faith do it. I can’t fathom that. I struggled at times. I’d say it all the time – ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ “

Traeger said he had a strong sense of the presence of Jesus at the most difficult times which helped him get through the physical and emotional pain. He believes it was all in God’s plan.

“I had this life before where I was always chasing my own ego. Academically, athletically, business-wise, politically, always trying to climb to the top of the mountain. And I had some success with that. But I think, like St. Paul, I had to be knocked off my horse. Several times.

“I needed to recommit myself that everything I do, everything is for Jesus. He’s got to have a reason for me still to be here. I’m not fully sure what that is but my ears are wide open… there is no other reason for me to be alive.”

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