Loretta Lynn Gets the Last Laugh (1998)
Originally published in the April 21, 1998 issue of Country Weekly featuring Loretta Lynn on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
We could demand of our men, "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," or sing the joys of "The Pill." If Loretta could declare "You Ain't Woman Enough" or lament that "One's on the Way," so could we.
Now, 30 years down the road, her message of strength is set to a very different tune. And the subject is silicone breast implants. "You women out there that have breast implants, it is dangerous. Have them jerked out," Loretta warns. "If you want to have something, get the saline ones."
In January, Loretta went through six hours of intensive surgery, the result of an impulsive decision 25 years ago. It's a horror story about an inept surgeon, an oversight in medical records, and the doctor who may well have saved her life. "If it wasn't for Dr. John Frist, I would have died," Loretta says simply.
For at least the past three years, silicone from those implants in the 1970s had been leaking into Loretta's chest cavity, attaching itself to her nerve endings, rib cage, backbone and tissue. Dr. Frist's assignment was to find and remove the minuscule particles that had spread throughout Loretta's torso before they killed her.
"It was a mess. It went all over," Loretta says. "He told me mine was the worst surgery he ever went through, and he's been doing it for a long time."
Loretta's story began when her secretary came in to show off her newly augmented breasts.
"We joked about never having to buy bras again, and I thought, 'I can go behind Doolittle's back and he'll never know,' because I was out on the road for weeks at a time,' " says Loretta, using her nickname for her late husband Mooney Lynn. "So I went in to have it done, and this crazy doctor opened up the left breast and took eight tumors and three cysts out and sewed me back up. He didn't put an implant in or go ahead with the right one. He said it was so messy he didn't want to deal with it. Later, they jerked his license and ran him out of Nashville."
Loretta left the doctor's office with a drainage tube on her left breast, looking as if she'd had a radical mastectomy. Later, a surgeon in Atlanta repaired the breast and inserted a silicone implant. Everything seemed fine.
Then, three years ago, Loretta began to suspect she had a problem.
"I told my doctor it was leaking and he said, 'We're gonna watch it,' " Loretta says. "I don't know what he meant by 'watch it,' but we watched it for three years."
She began having chest pains too, but since they were happening during Mooney's long illness, Loretta simply figured stress was affecting her heart.
"They put me in the hospital and checked. When you're tired and working a lot, your heart's a little weak and beats a little fast. But there was nothing wrong with it."
Loretta returned to the hospital, again complaining of chest pains. This time, the forthright singer had a thing or two to tell her doctor.
"I said, 'I want this thing jerked out. I want you to get me the best plastic surgeon in Nashville and I want a doctor with him.' I wanted to make sure I didn't have any problems."
During surgery, Dr. Frist discovered the real extent of Loretta's troubles. When Loretta's regular doctor checked back through her old medical records, he was appalled: He discovered a notation made 10 years before that the implant needed to be removed. "It was an oversight, because it had been so long ago. He was real tore up about it," Loretta says.
That's another problem women need to be aware of, says Loretta. "Doctors have so many patients that when you go to one for 25 years, he thinks he knows everything about you, so he doesn't worry. You have to remind them."
Then the tabloids got hold of the news. "The Globe said I was going in for a boob job to find me a man," says an indignant Loretta. "That made me so mad! I don't know how they got the angle they got, but it was a picture taken last year where you couldn't hardly see my breasts because of the outfit I had on. I looked fat. I said it looked like I needed liposuction, not a boob job." Loretta starts to laugh, and it's obvious that she's more upset about the photo than the story.
"Who would want to go through that to get a man?" Loretta adds with fire in her eyes. "I don't believe I have to do that!"
Getting a man is one of the last things on Loretta's agenda right now. Few people other than her family and closest friends realize how often death has touched her life over the past few years. In that time, she lost her adored husband Mooney, her older brother Melvin "Junior" Webb, her younger brother Jay Lee, her longtime friend and duet partner Conway Twitty, three uncles, two aunts and a first cousin who was like a sister. Even for a woman who often appears to be invincible, that kind of loss takes a long time to mend.
For two months after Mooney's quadruple bypass in 1993, Loretta stayed with him at the hospital. One day, on his way to visit Mooney, Conway Twitty collapsed.
"I was watching for his bus," Loretta recalls mournfully. "I told my husband I would run down and get him. I went down, and here they come dragging Conway in. I thought I was going to die. They'd given Doo up twice in that two months, so I was worried about him, too. Doo was all excited about seeing Conway, 'cause he loved Conway more than anybody -- that was his buddy -- and I had to tell Doo."
Loretta ran back and forth between Mooney's room and Conway's family. "Then the chaplain told me, 'If you want to see Conway alive, come with me.' I got there and I said, 'Now, Conway, you love to sing. You can't leave. Don't you leave me.'
"I'd heard that your spirit hovers over your body after you die, so I was yellin' at the ceilin', 'Conway, come on down here and get back in your body! It's still warm.' "
Loretta can laugh about it now, as she imagines what people around her must have thought. "So that came out in the paper. 'Loretta flips out.' "
Most people wouldn't be able to laugh over a memory like this, but Loretta isn't most people. She is a product of East Kentucky, a woman whose kinfolk survived hardship and loss for hundreds of years, and she draws on God and humor for her strength.
Conway's death was only the beginning. The next month, Loretta's older brother Junior Webb was dead.
"When Doo was in the hospital, they took Junior to Fort Wayne with a cold. They said he had pneumonia or something," Loretta recalls. "He was the oldest son in the family and he had never been in a hospital. They stuck him in there, put him on life support, and he lasted a week."
Her younger brother was next. "Jay Lee, he was seven years younger than me, died just three weeks before Doo," Loretta says slowly. "He got cancer of the pancreas and was gone in two months. It like to killed me. He was on the road with me for 11 years."
By late-August, Mooney was gone, after two leg amputations because of diabetes. All the grief Loretta had held at bay hit her, and she simply went numb.
"I think when they took the second leg off, he just kind of . . . ." Loretta trails off, choking on her words. "I didn't know he was going to die, and when he did I was in awful shape. I went to our home in Nashville and stayed up there all winter and didn't realize the time had passed. Suddenly winter was over, and I said to my friend Rosie, 'How long have we been up here?' And she said 'Almost a year.' I couldn't believe it."
When her winter of unspeakable grief ended, Loretta blossomed once again into the fearless spirit who had charmed the world. This coal miner's daughter had fans waiting for her, and she was as eager to embrace them as they were to supply the love she needed to heal. Appropriately, her first public performance was at the Grand Ole Opry.
"One of the things I've always told my kids is to always be good to people," she says. "Don't hurt nobody. I may never get to heaven, but it won't be because I hurt somebody. My fans are real important to me. If they come to see me, I'll give them a show. I don't care if I have to stand on my head and wiggle my ears."
Loretta is taking her time, letting her emotional and physical wounds heal at their own pace. She's helping her daughters get the ranch ready for visitors, gathering notes for a second autobiography, preparing a new album -- and discussing the details of another tour.
"Doo and I would have been together 50 years last January," Loretta reflects. "I catch myself talkin' to him all the time. I catch myself thinkin' he's here, and carrying on a conversation with someone, tellin 'em what I think Doo would like.
"But you can't look backwards. If you do, there's a lot of happiness you'll think about, but there's an awful lot of hurt you'll stop on. God has kept me going. I just turn to him for everything. You cannot take care of it yourself."