PENDLETON — Mr. Round-Up is fighting for his life.
Normally Randy Severe spends his days at his saddle shop on Airport Hill crafting fine saddles for clients around the world. Occasionally, he relaxes by strumming an old guitar he keeps in the rustic, rawhide-scented workroom or kibitzing with people who drop by the shop, greeting each newcomer with easy banter and his trademark smile.
Severe Bros. Saddlery is unnaturally quiet these days.
The saddlemaker is 200 miles away in a Portland hospital. According to family, Severe started feeling ill just after the Pendleton Round-Up which ended on Sept. 18. One day, he came home with a bottle of cough syrup and said he was tired. He seemed to have a hard time catching his breath and he went outside every so often for fresh air.
“I think I caught something,” daughter Jodi Thackeray remembered him saying.
Seven days after symptoms began, Rosemary noticed her 69-year-old husband’s breathing seemed rough and ragged. Daughter Darla Phillips whisked him to the hospital where a doctor determined that Severe’s oxygen levels had plummeted to 44% and that he definitely had COVID-19. That was the last time his wife Rosemary and other family members saw him for a while because of hospital isolation protocols.
After two weeks at St. Anthony Hospital, it was time for a ventilator. Severe was loaded onto a helicopter for a trip to Providence Medical Center in Portland. On the way, high winds buffeted the aircraft and forced the pilot to land in The Dalles. The experience might be an apt metaphor for Severe’s life in the past month. By mid-afternoon, he lay sedated and intubated in the Providence Intensive Care Unit.
Severe’s wife, Rosemary, and their five children finally got a look at Randy after a nurse initiated a video call with Jarad Severe, who connected his mom and four siblings. On their screens, they saw Randy, laying on his stomach in his hospital bed, tubes everywhere, with the side of his face visible to the camera. His back rose and fell with each breath.
They took turns talking to Randy, believing that down deep he could hear them.
“We just told him about our days and how his grandkids were doing,” Jodi said. “We talked about how we were missing him and how he needed to hurry up and get better.”
Finally they were allowed to see him in person as he deals with the aftereffects of Covid. Rosemary stays close to Randy. Her five children trade off driving to Portland and spending time with their father. Ryan Severe and Darci Burgener travel from their homes in Washington, and Jarad comes from Utah. Darla and Jodi drive from Pendleton.
It is hard to see such a strong and active man in such a state, they said. For years, Severe has built trophy saddles for champions of the Pendleton Round-Up. He has volunteered at the rodeo since he was a boy, when his job was to remove rocks from the arena.
Severe, past president of the Round-Up Association, hosts numerous cowboys at the bunkhouse on the second floor of his saddle shop each Round-Up week. Photos of hundreds of rodeo cowboy guests adorn the bunkhouse walls. The gallery includes a shot of Casey Tibbs, who is credited with christening the bunkhouse as Hotel de Cowpunch and hanging a sign with the moniker. This year was no different than the others. Severe interacted lightheartedly with this year’s crop of cowboys and fixed their banged-up saddles. On Thursday of Round-Up, the Severe Family Band held a jam session in the saddle shop surrounded by enthusiastic rodeo cowboys. The band includes Randy on guitar, Jodi, Darla and Darci on fiddle, Jarad on bass guitar and grandson Ty Liddle on guitar and spoons. Ryan is sound man.
At the rodeo this year, he volunteered by serving as something of a utility player, filling in where necessary. Mostly, he sat in the stands watching rodeo action and, on the last day, cowboys being awarded the four trophy saddles that Severe had created. Amazingly, one cowboy, Stetson Wright, won three of the four saddles after winning bull riding, bronc riding and all-around title.
In the wake of a wonderful Round-Up week, Randy tried to ignore an annoying cough and a sense of fatigue. He went to work Sept. 20, but came home early. On a Sept. 21, he did the same. The next five days, he didn’t try to work. Finally, a trip to the hospital drove home the reality the delta virus can topple even someone with Severe’s level of cowboy toughness.
Jarad, the family point man, has chronicled much of Randy’s journey with updates to Facebook. Lately, the dispatches include reason for optimism.
On Oct. 22: “Dad is making small improvements and staying stable. We have confidence in his strength and determination to heal.”
Doctors, he said, had placed a tracheotomy and removed the ventilator tube, took him off paralytic drugs and started lowering his level of sedation.
On Oct. 23: “It was the coolest thing. He was on low sedation and the nurse asked him to open his eyes and HE DID!!”
Family members are encouraged, though they know Randy must overcome profound lung damage. His alveoli — the tiny air sacs that allow the lungs and blood to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide — are not exchanging as quickly as they should, so air builds up, putting pressure on his heart. Doctors inserted a tube to release the trapped air.
“It’s been kind of a roller coaster with lots of ups and downs,” Jodi said. “It’s one step forward and two steps back. This is going to be a marathon.”
“Dad just had one of those immune systems that overreacted to the virus,” Jarad said. “It caused so much inflammation.”
The family has learned some hard lessons from the ordeal. Go for medical help early rather than toughing it out, they advised. Randy figured he would beat it and waited too long, they said.
“Seven days — that’s a long time to allow the virus to take over and do damage,” Jarad said.
Rosemary, who also got the virus, said she got an injection of monoclonal antibodies and bounced back without needing hospitalization.
She and her children expressed awe at those who have helped in a multitude of ways. Friends and family are working the Severe’s farm and providing security at the saddle shop. They are helping with travel costs, buying airplane tickets and Uber vouchers, and doing countless other kindnesses. Jodi can imagine her dad’s face when he learns of all the love coming his way.
“He would tear up and say how appreciative he is of friends who stepped in to help his family out while he’s down,” she said.
“He has a lot of cowboy friends out there,” Rosemary said.
Non-cowboy friends, too.
“Dad has no enemies,” Darla said. “He is loved by all.”
The family also thanked the medical team working with Randy.
“They are the soldiers on the front line,” Darla said. “You can see the compassion they have.”
Severe’s supporters are fundraising to help with medical expenses. One option is a GoFundMe account called the Randy Severe Medical Fund. People also can donate to an account set up at Columbia River Bank. Those wishing to send a check can mail it to Columbia River Bank, c/o Randy Severe Donation Account, 2101 S.W. Court Place, Pendleton, OR 97801. A possible auction also is in the works.
On the GoFundMe site, Jodi posted an encouraging comment to her father:
“Keep fighting, cowboy.”