Walter Trout couldn’t play guitar any more.
The bluesman had toured the world, gaining thousands of rabid fans and filling a shelf with awards.
But two years ago, he developed severe hand cramps. He was diagnosed with liver disease, which zapped his strength. He couldn’t hold a note. He could barely get out of bed.
Last spring, Walter lay dying in an Omaha hospital room.
Then the phone call came: There was a donor liver. Doctors at the Nebraska Medical Center were going to save his life.
Just more than a year after Walter received a new liver, the 64-year-old will return to Omaha Sunday to play a concert raising awareness of organ donation.
“If I ever get sick, I’m going to Omaha,” he said. “It’s a pretty incredible place.”
Walter’s playing is the stuff of a guitar lover’s dream. Thumping blues riffs and countless, aching runs down the fretboard pepper his 22 albums.
After a career with Canned Heat, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and a long solo stint, he’s considered a blues legend.
Big gigs took Trout all over the world and brought him a modicum of fame. And with his success came excess.
Walter drank. He did drugs. He was unkind to his liver.
He calls it his “misspent youth.”
“I’m lucky to be alive, let alone well,” he said. “I was doing heroin and you name it. I was leading a really debauched existence.”
Walter did clean up his act. He got sober in 1988 but was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a disease that can scar the liver and ultimately lead to liver failure.
“He had quite a stint, where he felt so very regretful about the many years of substance abuse and alcoholism, which indirectly contributed to his disease,” said his wife, Marie.
About two years ago, Walter experienced excruciating cramps during concerts, especially in his hands. Often, Walter would have to pry his hand open and play solos with a single finger. He didn’t know what was wrong with him.
Walter continued playing and writing music. He worked on new songs with his band and even recorded a new album, “The Blues Came Callin’,” but, in his deteriorating state, he took an entire year to finish it.
Walter was finally diagnosed with liver disease in early 2014. Doctors at the UCLA Medical Center tried to treat him there for six weeks.
It didn’t work. His liver failed.
If he didn’t get a transplant within 90 days, he was told, he would die.
Oh, and one more thing: The waiting list in California was long. He probably wouldn’t get a liver.
“They had basically told me, ‘You’re going to die here,’ ” Walter said.
A scoring system called MELD, the model for end-stage liver disease, determines a person’s place on the transplant list.
Though transplant lists for some organs prioritize the time a person has been waiting, the liver transplant list is solely based on the patient’s score.
A low MELD score — say, 15 — could mean sitting on the list for months. A score in the 30s could get you a transplant within a few weeks.
The U.S. is divided into 11 regions to facilitate transplants. In some regions, California especially, it can be more difficult to get a transplant.
“It’s not uncommon for transplant programs to say, ‘We’re just not going to get to you. ... We’d rather you go somewhere else and get transplanted,’ ” said Dr. David Mercer, Walter’s transplant surgeon.
Walter was in and out of intensive care. He suffered a torn tendon and a hematoma in his left leg. His legs and abdomen were swollen from the disease.
Marie did some research. Friend and blues singer Curtis Salgado, a Portland-based blues singer who received a successful liver transplant in Omaha in 2006, recommended the Nebraska Medical Center.
Marie spoke to doctors at UCLA, and they cleared him to go to Omaha, where there was a higher likelihood that he would get a donor liver.
By then, Walter had lost 120 pounds. He couldn’t press down the strings on a Stratocaster his son had brought to his hospital room.
“At that moment, I figured I was done,” he said. “Even if I made it, I’d never be able to play again.”
In April 2014, Walter and Marie flew first class to Omaha.
All Walter had to do now was wait.
Marie found a condo in the Old Market where they could live. She started a blog on waltertrout.com where she explained his condition and kept fans updated with stories and photos from his journey.
The Trouts raised more than $240,000 via a fundraising website and even more through benefit concerts — Trout’s band played concerts without him — and other donations.
During his time in Omaha, Walter was in and out of the hospital. He’d get better and be discharged. Then he’d get worse and be admitted again.
He was treated by the liver team at Nebraska Medical Center, chiefly Dr. Daniel Schafer.
“He’s the greatest doctor I’ve ever known. He’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met,” Walter said.
The paradox of Walter’s treatment, though, was that the better he felt, the longer he could have to wait.
He needed a new liver, but his MELD score was getting better. He was moved lower on the list.
That didn’t last long.
In May 2014, Walter had fluid in his lungs. He couldn’t communicate much or get out of bed. He developed encephalopathy, a brain disease that causes an altered mental state. He had fevers from infections. He suffered from internal bleeding. Some days, he would fall unconscious and couldn’t be woken up.
But there was good news: Walter had gone to the top of the transplant list.
On May 13, 2014, there was a donor liver, but it wasn’t healthy. Doctors passed and waited for another.
Walter was dying.
“I probably had 10 days to live,” Walter said. “I was gone.”
Walter’s resolve wore thin, but Marie was there to make him feel better. They began to always refer to the surgery as happening “tomorrow,” even when it wasn’t.
Marie’s phone rang at 1 p.m. on May 25.
It was a nurse coordinator at the med center.
“I just want to let you know that we updated Walter’s MELD score, and it is now 31. And, in fact, we have an offer to run by you:
“We have a liver that looks to be a good match for Walter.”
Walter was wheeled into surgery the next morning.
To keep the room energized during the five-hour surgery, Mercer pumped Walter’s music through the operating room speakers.
“It’s not very often that you have an icon of music in your operating room, so I guess you kind of owe it to them to listen to something from that artist,” Mercer said.
Within two days, Walter was out of the intensive care unit. Almost immediately, he felt like a new man.
“I feel pretty damn good,” he said. “I’m kind of a miracle of modern medicine.”
It was still a long road back. He couldn’t yet pick up a guitar. “I didn’t have any muscles left. I was skin and bones,” he said.
These days, he still has trouble opening glass jars, but he can play guitar better than he has in years.
“It’s joyous, man,” he said. “I really didn’t think I’d be able to again.”
There were complications after the transplant. He needed a bile duct surgery in June. He had to be fed via an IV.
Walter got through it. He got stronger and more agile as he lived in a rehabilitation center in Omaha.
By August, he was able to leave the facility and go on a date with Marie. Later that month, he was released from the rehab facility.
On Aug. 31, he attended a tribute show hosted by Mercer, and on Sept. 2, he was home in California.
Walter’s goal was to be back on stage one year after the transplant.
One year and 20 days after his surgery, he walked into the Royal Albert Hall in London and played his first concert for a large audience. He’s now dedicated to participating in events that help people, and that first concert raised money for Shooting Star Chase Children’s Hospice Care, a charity in the United Kingdom.
The June 15 concert was his first in about two years, and he was greeted with a standing ovation.
“(It) was an amazing experience, and although it was just a taste of what is yet to come, it feels unbelievable to pick up the guitar, step behind the microphone, and feel alive,” he said the day after the show.
Full recovery from a transplant can take a couple of years, so Walter’s quick return to the stage has been impressive, especially to those who treated him in Omaha.
“He’s done pretty well to come from as sick as he was going into the transplant to then being back on a world stage,” Mercer said. “He’s still on his journey. He’ll get stronger and stronger. He’ll get better and better.”
Walter and Marie are grateful for their time in Omaha, especially their doctors.
“It’s almost like you are not just a patient. You’re becoming a friend of the staff and they truly, truly care for you,” Marie said.
Walter feels like he got a second chance.
“What’s left to do is make more music and play for more people,” he said. “Be a good husband, a good father and a good musician.”
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Walter Trout Band on tour in the Midlands
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Forte, 615 Third St., Des Moines
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. 111 Third St., Sioux City, Iowa
Tickets: $16.05 to $26.75
Donate Life Blues Fest
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: River City Star, 151 Freedom Park Road
Tickets: $25 in advance at eventbrite.com or $30 day of show All net proceeds benefit Donate Life Nebraska.
2 p.m.: Lauren Anderson Band
3:15 p.m.: Terry Quiett Band
5 p.m.: Tommy Castro and the Painkillers with special guests Billy Watts, Teresa James, Brad Cordle
7 p.m.: Walter Trout Band
8:30 p.m.: Ending jam hosted by Terry Quiett