|Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier|
Danny Romero, left, shares a laugh as he plays guitar and sings with his close friend, Sky Conwell of Sky Daddy & The Pop Rocks at The Palace on Tuesday.
Special to the Review
Sitting comfortably on a padded chair near the front entrance of The Palace Restaurant & Saloon as the afternoon sunlight shined through the windowpane behind him last Tuesday, Danny Romero's booming, well-pitched voice once again filled a room.
Without a microphone, the 37-year-old Chino Valley resident strummed his acoustic guitar and sang country songs alongside fellow friend and musician, Sky Conwell, grinning from ear to ear.
Romero, who was a popular vocalist with the local country/rockabilly band Arizona Territory, is back doing what he loves - and it seems like nothing can stop him now.
You wouldn't know it from initial appearances, but Romero's been through hell over the past two years. Only recently did he escape its fiery clutches and live to tell his miracle tale of survival.
In May 2011, a flesh-eating bacteria mysteriously infected Romero's lower left leg. Working as a cattle ranch hand who doubled as an electrician, he rode horses several hours a day. But he didn't realize initially that he also had compartment syndrome in that limb, which exacerbated his condition.
"I had overworked my calf muscles so bad," Romero said in reflection during a break from playing last week. "I had an extremely high tolerance for pain."
Three days after being infected, his leg swelled considerably. Romero was ultimately rushed to Flagstaff Medical Center, where he underwent emergency surgery to amputate the lower half of his left leg to prevent the bacteria from spreading.
Today, Romero believes he caught the bacteria after tearing his jeans on the ranch and scraping his skin enough to let it into his bloodstream. Only 72 hours following the incident, doctors gave Romero a 15-20 percent chance to live.
He was induced into a coma and, for a short while, had no blood pressure, no pulse and went into full renal failure. But he would soon come out of the coma and go on dialysis for almost four weeks. Doctors subsequently fitted him with a prosthetic limb.
Until this past month, Romero spent 1-1/2 years in the Phoenix area at his family's home receiving rehabilitation from a physical therapist. For a man who was in the hospital for three weeks, Romero has recovered exceptionally well.
"When I got sick, I was in a bad place," Romero said. "I was day-working and I lost my (electrician) business. You can either succeed or fail. I did what I had to do to get my life back. I appreciate it so much more."
Now, Romero is back living here and returning to normal with the support and love of his girlfriend, Mary Parra.
He and Conwell are having fun playing at The Palace, where they were offered a weekly gig, and the former is piecing his life together. Two weeks ago, Romero went back to doing some electrical work, which he said made him feel "alive again."
"Just being home this last month is so fulfilling," he said. "It's been challenging, but my family and friends have been the catalyst."
Romero and Parra, also of Chino Valley, met only three months before Romero's illness, in February 2011. However, Parra, 26, has stayed by his side the entire time.
They met when he was playing with Arizona Territory and later began dating.
"We just kind of hit it off right away and started talking," Parra said. "When I found out what happened (to him) I was devastated. I was really, really scared."
They spoke to each other every day until the Thursday of the incident on the ranch. She wouldn't receive a text message from Romero until that Friday, one in which she said he was slightly rambling.
"He said, 'Hey, I'm not ignoring you,' and he kept repeating how much pain he was in," Parra said. "He said something about how he hit his knee. As soon as I got off work, I called him, but I didn't get any answer."
Throughout the ensuing weekend, Parra didn't hear anything from Romero. She didn't learn the extent of his condition until the following Monday from the girlfriend who introduced her to Romero.
Parra didn't know his family and friends well at the time, and didn't have their phone numbers.
"I was heartbroken, and then I kind of went into a protection mode for him and a fight mode to where I just wanted him to live and be there for him," she said. "I didn't care if they had to take both of his legs or his arms."
Parra didn't talk to Romero until a week and a half later, after he awoke from his coma.
In the ensuing month, Parra started traveling to Scottsdale, where Romero was staying with family following his release from the hospital, at least twice a week.
She spent almost every weekend with Romero. But they didn't sit around and sulk. They spent hours doing Internet research on how amputees survived their first month after losing a limb. More importantly, they walked wherever they could.
"I've seen him progress miles and miles," Parra said. "He's amazing. I've never met a man who inspires people the way he does."
Last Tuesday at The Palace, a senior couple from Minnesota listened to Romero and Conwell, who are affectionately dubbed "Twang 'n Angst," while eating lunch. This was only the third or fourth time they had played together since Romero returned to Prescott.
Bill and Barb Stangler, who were passing through town while on vacation, quickly picked up on the duo's talent and charisma.
In between songs, Romero shared his story with the Stanglers and pulled up the jean on his left leg to expose his prosthetic.
"I'm extremely lucky," Romero told them. "It could've been a lot worse."
When he plays, Romero props his right leg up on his open guitar case while the left one rests on the floor. You don't realize anything out of the ordinary until he gets up to walk, which he does gingerly.
Bill, who plays in a swing band called "The Echoes" in Minnesota, was impressed with Romero and Conwell.
"They do a helluva nice job," he said before he and Barb had their photo taken with Sky and Danny. "He (Romero) plays with heart. He can raise the spirit of anyone that will listen to him and hear his music."
Romero and Conwell, who occasionally harmonize, play original songs they have written as well as old standards.
On this day, Roy "Pepper" Siegfried, another close friend of Romero's and an Arizona Territory band mate, also stopped by to listen. They have not played together since December 2010 at the Acker Music Festival.
Siegfried and Conwell said it's "phenomenal" how Romero's kept his composure through the near-death experience. They consider Romero an inspiration and admire him for his determination to keep "right on going."
"Danny's head is really clear," Conwell said. "He's a much different person. He's got that drive."
Four months after Romero left the hospital, he and Siegfried attended a rodeo in Tombstone. Romero was on crutches, but enjoying every minute of it.
"It's amazing - his recovery was fabulous," Siegfried said. "Within a couple months, he was riding a bicycle. He was on the phone with me all the time. He hasn't slowed down a bit."
Initially, Romero's closest friends were concerned that he might now make it out of the hospital alive.
But Romero's a spiritual man who was raised Catholic and loves his family dearly. His drive and determination to live pulled him through.
Romero is inspired by Parra; the memories of his best friend, Bryce Heffner, who died in a tragic automobile accident at age 27; and his mom, a 4-foot-9, 100-pound sparkplug who died 10 years ago.
"I feel my mother's presence," he said. "I feel her in me all the time."
That's one of the reasons why Romero has progressed so far in such a short period of time. His prosthetist recently told him that in one year of physical therapy he is where 90 percent of amputees hope to be after two years of treatment.
Romero said he wants to "get back to living," including riding horses and roping again, and rebuilding his electrician business.
But he also has a fierce desire to return more extensively to his music.
Romero would like to re-form Arizona Territory by the Fourth of July - once he feels like he can stand for extended periods on his prosthetic.
The group composed of Romero, Conwell, Siegfried, Paul LaFortune and Steve Tanse played for almost a decade together until Romero's illness.
"My strength has come back, and I'm blessed with great balance and coordination," Romero said. "But I'm also blessed with an incredible family, friends and girlfriend. I thank God for those things every day."