FOREST LAKE, Minn. - It's hard to keep track of how many times Troy Meyer cheated death in the past three years.

First, there was a severe brain infection that required surgery and left the Forest Lake police officer in a coma for a month.

A year later, there was a near-fatal lung infection and a risky double-lung transplant.

Six months after that, doctors found a hole in Meyer's chest and, during 12 hours of surgery in September, removed the upper half of his new right lung, part of one rib and a chunk of muscle.

"It's a miracle he's still here," his wife, Sarah Meyer, said during a recent interview at the kitchen counter of their house in Columbus Township.

"He literally could have died from any of those things, but he healed so quickly and came back so quickly," she said. "He's supposed to be here for a reason."

Troy Meyer says the reason is simple: "To make a difference for somebody, I hope."

Meyer, 41, recently returned to his job, working the 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. night shift.

Joining his hometown force was a lifelong dream for the Forest Lake native. He was hired in July 2005 after working for police departments in Chatfield, Minn., and Eagle Bend, Minn.

"I just really enjoy helping people," said Meyer, who graduated from Forest Lake High School in 1994. "I like the variety of it, doing something different every day. You never know what the day is going to bring."

Meyer has chased criminals, delivered a baby and helped save a young woman who was having a heart attack.

"It's not that hard to be nice to people," Meyer said. "Treat people how you would want to be treated, and that just goes a long ways. You'd be surprised how many 'Thank yous' you get when you write somebody a ticket for speeding or seat belt. Just be nice to people, and give them an explanation as to why you're doing this: 'Seat belts save lives. Speed kills.'"

Before he became ill, Meyer was the school-resource officer at Southwest Junior High School. He will return to that position in the fall.

"He loves kids and understands them," Sarah Meyer said. "He's not just there to discipline; he's also there to teach and help them out and listen to them."

Despite his troubles, Meyer has stayed positive. "Things happen for a reason," he said. "You don't want to walk around feeling sorry for yourself. 'Oh, boo-hoo.' People have it a lot worse off than I do."

Police Chief Rick Peterson said Meyer has been an inspiration to the 23-person force.

"He was always confident that he would return to work - even when others questioned how anyone could fully recover from something like that," Peterson said. "The only question he had was: 'When can I return to work?'"

First, a headache

Meyer's health issues began with a debilitating headache starting a few days before Dec. 22, 2014, his 39th birthday.

"I can't even describe how bad it was," he said. "I was barely functioning. I don't even remember Christmas, it was so bad."

Sarah Meyer was shopping the day after Christmas, so Troy's mother, Linda Meyer, who lives in Forest Lake, took him to the emergency room at Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, Minn. They gave him some medicine and sent him home.

A few hours later, he called his mother and said he needed to go back to the hospital.

"I couldn't even get dressed," he said. "All I could do was lie down. While I was putting on my pants, I fell over. My equilibrium was so bad. ... Mom had to walk me out to the car."

An MRI showed he had two abscesses on the right side of his brain. He was sent to the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis for further testing and underwent brain surgery the next morning.

"The next thing I remember is waking up four or five days later," Meyer said.

Doctors discovered that his brain infection was caused by the same bacteria that normally cause strep throat, Streptococcus cocci.

"For some reason, it went up to his brain, and it grew these big lesions - one controls your personality, and one controls your balance and equilibrium," said Sarah Meyer. "That was why he kept falling."

Meyer, who keeps his head shaved, has two 3-inch scars on his scalp from the surgery that left him temporarily paralyzed on his left side.

"I had to learn to walk again," he said. "It was almost like I had a stroke. I had to go through rehab to walk and to talk and chew."

Finally, in March 2015, he got the all-clear to return to work.

Then infection, reaction

The Meyers, who have two sets of twins, had a nine-month reprieve.

But in December 2015, Meyer started getting short of breath walking up stairs.

At the University of Minnesota Medical Center, doctors determined he had a severe lung infection.

"My oxygen levels were down to 77; they should be high 90s," he said. "They put me on oxygen immediately, but I just kept getting worse. I just couldn't catch my breath."

An ultrasound showed that Meyer had a blood clot near his right collarbone. Treating the blood clot had near-fatal consequences; Meyer went into anaphylactic shock after a severe allergic reaction to the blood-clot medication.

He was immediately moved to the ICU and placed on a ventilator.

"His breathing and overall health slowly deteriorated, and they decided to place him in a medical-induced coma so that his body would begin to relax, not fight, the ventilator and give his body time to heal," Sarah Meyer wrote in a CaringBridge post at the time. "Due to the infection, allergic reaction and the fighting of the ventilator, Troy's lungs are only functioning at 10 percent capacity, which is irreversible."

Sarah Meyer, an underwriter at Travelers Cos. in St. Paul, said she did not grasp the severity of her husband's situation until a doctor walked into his hospital room in late December and said they needed to discuss lung transplants.

"I said, 'What do you mean?'" she said. "I just assumed he was going to get better even though clearly no, he's basically functioning on a breathing machine. I think because he recovered so quickly (from the brain abscesses), I was like, 'He's fine.' The doctor said, 'No, actually the next step is a transplant, so we're going to put him on the transplant list because it could take some time on the list.'"

As they waited for lungs to become available, Meyer remained in the coma and was kept alive by an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine - an ECMO machine - that functioned as a replacement for his lungs.

"It's all so eerie because you're waiting for somebody to pass away," Sarah Meyer said. "It was Christmastime, and everybody we know is texting me and saying, 'Hey, we saw an ambulance. I'm sorry. I'm hoping those are Troy's lungs.' It's just crazy to think that."

The transplant

On Jan. 4, 2016, seven days after being placed on the ECMO machine, he underwent an eight-hour double-lung transplant.

The Meyers don't know anything about the donor except that he lived out-of-state.

The lungs were flown to Minnesota in a "lung box," a large, sterile box designed to maintain and improve donated lungs. Lungs can last for 8 to 12 hours in the box, which keeps them at body temperature and also acts as a ventilator.

"They're able to fly them around anywhere in the U.S.," Sarah Meyer said. "The surgeon said they looked fantastic. He said the machine kind of buffs them up and cleans them up."

A few days after the surgery, Sarah Meyer wrote on CaringBridge that Troy was conscious and had been told that he had been in the hospital for almost a month and that he had two new lungs.

"He was very shocked ... and taken aback by the news," she wrote.

Meyer, who loves the "Rocky" movies and Sylvester Stallone, was dubbed "The Champ" during his recovery.

"Guess who walked without a walker to and from (physical therapy) today??? That's right, The Champ did," Sarah Meyer wrote in a CaringBridge post on Jan. 27, 2016. "Troy got the left front chest tube pulled today. Whoop, whoop! They will keep the rear one in for a couple more days. He ate a taco for dinner. It is the simple things that make me smile."

Meyer was released from the hospital on Feb. 9 and recovered at home for the next several months.

In June, his feeding tube was removed, and he was told that he would be able to return to work in September.

In August, though, at a family outing to Chipotle Mexican Grill in Blaine, Meyer started coughing up dinner.

"You know the term 'Goes down the wrong tube'? Mine literally was," he said. "I was aspirating. Food was going in my lungs, and then I'd cough it out."

Doctors discovered a fistula - "a fancy term for a hole" - in his esophagus near his lung, he said. They think it was caused by a chest infection he had contracted a few months earlier.

So after a two-month break from a feeding tube, Meyer was back on a piped-in liquid diet for three more months.

"All I could have was ice chips," he said. "I couldn't drink. I couldn't eat food, no swallowing. Nothing down the throat, into the mouth, except ice chips."

More surgery

The Sept. 30 surgery to repair the hole took more than 12 hours and required three surgeons: a plastic surgeon, general surgeon and throat surgeon.

"It was actually way more intense than my transplant surgery," he said. "They were nervous that they had to cut me open in the same spot - just down the middle. I was barely healed from the first one, so they were nervous to do that one again."

Surgeons removed the top part of his right lung; it had died off because of the infection. "They also took out part of my chest muscle to repair the hole, and they took out three inches of one of my ribs to insert the muscle to fix the hole," he said.

Meyer, 5-feet-10 and 172 pounds, lost 40 pounds.

"Look at me. I don't have 40 pounds to lose," he said. "I was literally skin and bones. I was so self-conscious about how skinny I was. It was embarrassing."

After 13 months off, Meyer returned to work at the end of January.

"I feel really, really lucky," he said. "On the one hand, I've had lots of bad luck. But I've been very, very lucky."

Chief Peterson said Meyer's focus, even during the worst of days of his recovery, was on his family and his fellow officers.

"He is incredibly unselfish," Peterson said. "His strength throughout his recovery definitely made us stronger as a department. We were fighting right alongside him. You look at what he and his family went through, and the small bumps in the road that we all encounter from time to time in our lives sure seem minuscule compared to his journey."

The Meyers plan this spring to reach out to the donor's family through the transplant coordinator and let them know how he is doing.

"We wanted to get through the holidays, because I'm sure that's a tough time for them," Meyer said.

They are planning to have a family portrait taken of them with their children: Max and Maleah, 10, and Jack and Hannah, 8.

"We want to say, 'This is where the lungs went. They went to a good home, and here's our family,'" Sarah Meyer said. "I'm hoping to hear back from them. I'd like to know who it was just to say 'Thank you.'"

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.