Tennis: Elk coach Ronning recovering from mysterious, serious illness

by Bruce Strand, Sports Editor

Randy Ronning was back at his post running the Elk River Open this past weekend, almost as though nothing had happened.

Less than a month earlier, Ronning spent three days unconscious in an intensive care unit.

The coach of eight Elk state tournament tennis teams and the 2012 state champions, a robust picture of health and fitness at age 60, he was almost lost due to a strange reaction to some toxic substance July 8.

Randy Ronning
Randy Ronning

“It gave me a new perspective on things. That’s for sure,” reflected Ronning with a grim smile.

That day, Ronning was resealing a driveway that he installed five years ago. He had resealed an older driveway several times without incident. Figuring he might as well do a complete job while he was at it, he tore out the old caulking on the cement apron at the end of driveway.

He suddenly got dizzy, went inside to lay down for 20 minutes and felt better. He completed the driveway job and did some yard work, but after a few hours, felt pain and swelling in his jaw.

The next morning he went to urgent care, where they recommended an antibiotic. He called a replacement for his tennis lessons and went to bed. By 5:30 p.m., his throat and face were so swollen that breathing was difficult.

Back at urgent care, his doctor, alarmed this time, directed him to take an ambulance to the emergency room. Ronning said, “Well, my wife can drive me,” but the doctor replied, bluntly, “You might not make it.”

Apparently mold, or a toxic substance in the caulking, or a combination of the two, caused the serious reaction, Ronning said, adding, “We may never be sure.”

At the ICU at Mercy Hospital, they put Ronning under and didn’t wake him up until three days later.

He had a tube stuffed down his throat for a breathing passage. Having the tube removed was “the closest thing to death I’ve ever had,” he said. “What suffocating or drowning must be like.”

Ronning stayed at the ICU for a week. They wanted him to stay longer, but he insisted on leaving. The day he woke up, the ICU was full, but a couple days later, there were several empty beds. He commented to a doctor that a lot of people must have gotten well. But he was told, “No, those people died,” which showed how harrowing his own experience was.

Aftereffects of the attack linger. As yet, Ronning can’t salivate and has to spray a substance into his mouth. He can’t taste food. He’s lost 20 pounds.

“My weight never fluctuated more than a pound or two in my life,” he noted.

The antibiotics caused his kidneys to shut down; they’re just now getting back to normal. Sleep was sporadic due to the dry mouth, although new medicine is helping with that. He’s been told his taste and saliva functions will return eventually.

But Ronning, who makes his living as a year-round tennis pro, along with coaching the Elks and substitute teaching, returned to the courts right away, probably his best medicine. His doctor advised against that, but the coach protested, “I’ve got to get back. That’s what I do.”

He directed the Elk River Open for the 21st consecutive year, although for the first time, he didn’t play in it himself.

To tournament participants, Ronning was his familiar upbeat, helpful self. His own assessment: “I’m weak, especially in the legs. I don’t really care if I gain the weight back, I just want my strength back.”

This wasn’t even the first health setback this year for Ronning, whose luck ran out suddenly after a lifetime of fitness and health. In February, finally paying a price for hundreds of thousands of serves and volleys, he needed surgery on his right rotator cuff.

He got a kick out of what the doctor told him that day: “The good news is that you’re the most physically fit 60-year-old I’ve seen in a long time. The bad news is, you’re 60 years old.”