816 North

Liberty couple embrace the vow ‘in sickness and in health’

Jeff and Pam Magill relax in the living room of their Kansas City home north of Liberty.
Jeff and Pam Magill relax in the living room of their Kansas City home north of Liberty. Special to The Star

Jeff Magill and Pam Magill’s honeymoon cruise was marred only slightly when he noticed stomach pains.

Once on dry land, a visit to the doctor led to a consultation with a specialist.

The Magills had been married for only three weeks when Jeff Magill discovered he was seriously ill.

“The first thing (the doctor) asked was, ‘Are you a drinker?’” said Jeff Magill, 48.

“He said you have... It is ‘vericose’?”

“You have varices in your esophagus,” Pam Magill said, gently correcting him.

The condition, cirrhosis, is a mark of serious liver damage. While he has a liver similar to that of someone who has an acute drinking problem, he barely touches alcohol.

The two, who were married Nov. 11, 2011, were told that he would need a liver transplant to avoid serious health complications and early death.

“It just crippled me,” Jeff Magill said on a quiet winter afternoon, gazing out the window of their home north of Liberty.

Jeff Magill discussed his illness a few weeks before National Donor Day, an annual observance designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to raise awareness of the 120,000 patients awaiting critical organ and tissue donations. It shares Feb. 14 with the more widely celebrated Valentine’s Day.

Since learning of his diagnosis, Jeff Magill has seen his energy and stamina sapped from him. Since his diagnosis, he’s grown too weak to walk through a grocery store or even sit through a meal with his wife on bad days.

Jeff Magill’s speech is slow and laborious. The disease has neurological effects and has diminished the speed and power of his memory.

“I’m a third of what I used to be,” he said.

“I told her, I said, ‘If you want a divorce, I completely understand,’ ” he said, while Pam Magill reached up to touch her husband’s crossed arms.

“We had been briefed on how it was going to go down, how I was going to continue to go downhill until I get my transplant.”

“If he gets a transplant,” said Pam Magill, 46.

Jeff Magill’s fate is largely in the hands of a system that places potential organ recipients according to the severity of their disease. He is usually around eighth in line for a new liver, though he was briefly No. 1 in May 2015 when his condition worsened.

Pam Magill is there from the first light, to watch her husband take a handful of pills he struggles to name but knows are critical to keeping him alive.

The two recognize they live in a world with its own rules, and note that some friends and even family members have distanced themselves over the years. Their only constant is each other.

After learning about the diagnosis, “I thought, why couldn’t it be me instead of him,” Pam Magill said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to fight this together.’ 

Pam Magill has honored the commitment as both a wife and an advocate for organ donation. She founded and administers an organ recipient caretakers support group on Facebook that has about 200 members around the world. She also wears an organ donor pin in hopes of inviting conversations about the issue and to encourage more people to become donors.

Her pin says “caregiver.”

Her husband has a similar pin. His says “waiting.”

If he waits too long, Jeff Magill is likely to go into a coma state.

The average wait time for a liver through the University of Kansas Hospital is six to eight months. Because Jeff’s blood is type O and requires another like donor, his wait time has been nearly three times that.

For now, the Magills rely on routines that both comfort them and help keep him alive.

Pam Magill gets moving a few minutes before her husband does. She checks Facebook and enjoys a cup of coffee and a few minutes to herself.

Jeff Magill begins his day by feedings the dogs and taking his meds.

If he’s up for what the day brings, they share a commute to work together. Pam Magill still works at the Avis store at Kansas City International Airport, where the two met. Jeff Magill has a management role in the airport’s shuttle bus system. On days when he feels weak, he works remotely.

Regardless of whether he leaves for work with his wife or works from home, Jeff Magill makes his wife’s lunch.

It’s a a small show of gratitude he insists on fulfilling every day.