Brent and Morgan Magill were glowing newlyweds at the beginning of 2019.
Both were teachers at Pear Park Elementary School — he taught fourth grade and she taught third — and just months into the new year, they bought a house and discovered they were going to be parents, with baby Magill set to arrive nearly two weeks after their first wedding anniversary in November.
“We were so excited,” Brent said.
Those days were color- bursts as the Magills celebrated the joy of these special times with their extended local family and coworkers at Pear Park. Now, a couple weeks into 2020, the Magills and their family and friends are still celebrating, but with a joy born out of sorrow, as 2019 became a year that broke many a heart in more than one way.
HEART PROBLEMS DISCOVERED
As May and the end of the school year approached, Brent put together an ambitious to-do list for the summer: Paint the interior of the house, landscape, get the nursery ready and more.
But he was tired from the busy school year and eager for summer break. Morgan, in her first trimester of pregnancy, was tired, too. They didn’t think much of it, though, and Brent even told his doctor he thought he pulled a muscle in his chest during a serious round of tug-of-war at the school’s field day. At 39, he couldn’t think of any other reason why his chest would hurt.
And then, on a short trip with Brent’s mom, Jackie Owen, to Leadville over Memorial Day weekend, “I just couldn’t keep up,” Brent said.
His exhaustion increased, but everything seemed OK. Blood work was good, no blocked arteries and so on.
Then he began retaining water until one day, “I noticed my legs were leaking water,” Brent said.
“It was just dripping out” of the pores, Morgan added.
Medication was prescribed but then came an evening in late June.
Morgan realized Brent was looking purple-ish. He told her “can you come lay with me? I don’t think I’m going to make it through the night.”
“We’re going to the hospital,” she told him.
That was when it was discovered that less than 30% of his heart was working. The wall of his heart was too thin. His heart “was giving out,” Brent said.
At the end of June, Brent was airlifted to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.
Brent needed a heart transplant.
NOT A PERFECT HEART AVAILABLE
Brent made it to the top of the heart transplant list and a heart became available. The only hang-up: It was positive for hepatitis C. The Magills were asked, do you want to take it or wait?
With his wife and baby to live for, he didn’t want to wait or become weaker.
“Let’s do it,” Brent said.
Brent’s July 6 heart transplant surgery was an eight-hour ordeal and 12-hour wait for the family.
“Twelve hours was a long time. It was a really long time,” she said, recalling how she and other family members and friends slept, or tried to sleep, at the hospital.
After the surgery, Brent did well at first, but his new heart was beating too fast and it had to be shocked in an effort to get it to reset. Eventually, Brent had to again rely on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to pump his blood to help his new heart.
On July 23, physicians found that the right side of Brent’s new heart simply wasn’t working. He needed another transplant, Morgan was told. The doctors “didn’t know what was going on,” Morgan said.
But in the midst of all this there was a bright spot. In Brent’s hospital room they opened the envelope Morgan had been given at her July doctor’s appointment: They were going to have a boy!
“We started crying,” Morgan said.
“Let’s celebrate!” the nurses told them and brought them apple juice.
‘WAS I SCARED? YES’
With surgeries, infections, machines and at least 16 tubes going in and out at one point, the days, at times, ran together for Brent, who marked his 40th birthday while in the hospital.
“I was bedridden for two-and-a-half months,” he said.
Brent was too weak to survive another transplant, so physicians took a wait-and-see approach. Morgan and Brent’s mom, Jackie, switched off spending nights at the hospital.
“I couldn’t hug him, couldn’t kiss him. Not anything,” Morgan said.
It was hard, but “I never felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” Brent said. “Was I scared? Yes.”
He refused to be negative.
“This is for Owen. This is for Morgan. I’m going to fight for them,” Brent said, using the name that was to become his son’s.
A former student even visited him. “All she wanted for her 13th birthday was to come and see me,” Brent said. “She was telling me she appreciated me and how much she loved me as a teacher.”
It was amazing to see how much she cared, Brent said.
And she wasn’t the only one. Back in Grand Junction, coworkers from Pear Park raised money to help the Magills with their medical expenses.
“We did several work sessions at their house,” said Barb Lien, a technology instructor at Pear Park and close friend.
They pulled a couple stumps out of the front yard, weeded and planted flowers and took turns along with the Magills’ family members going by the house to water, Lien said.
Staff from the school painted most of the interior of the house, finishing a job Brent had started months before.
When school started, staff moved Morgan’s students into other third-grade classes. Students sent the Magills cards and coworkers sent packages.
And then one day, Brent stretched slightly “and I felt different.”
Tests revealed the right side of his heart had started working, which was a miracle considering more than a month had gone by since the transplant.
“All the doctors were pretty amazed,” Brent said.
IMPROVEMENT BUT SAD NEWS
By September, Brent was learning how to eat again, how to sit up, stand and walk. He and Morgan celebrated every step.
They even planned to get across the street from UCHealth to see 9-year-old Aden Lake, a Pear Park student hospitalized at Children’s Hospital. Born with multiple heart defects, Aden had a heart transplant in 2015.
“He was supposed to be in my class this year,” Morgan said.
Unfortunately, before the Magills could put their plan into action, coworkers called with sad news. Aden died on Sept. 19.
“Aden was a huge blow to us. We had just gotten the good news that Brent was doing so much better … we were on a high,” Lien said.
“That was really rough,” she said. “It was really hard, because his class would come in and his seat was empty.”
“Our hearts were kind of healing from that and then we had another student pass away. And she was a first-grader,” Lien said.
Ruby Williams, 7, who had a high-pitched laugh that rang with delight to spite the health issues she also dealt with, died Oct. 29.
“When they (Magills) found out about Aden and then Ruby, they asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ ” Lien said. “Even though they were going through their own thing, they wished they could be here for us through ours.”
Many Pear Park staff members now wear ribbons on their school identification lanyards: black and orange on one side for Aden because he dreamed of being a Grand Junction High School Tiger, and purple on the other side for Ruby, because “all she wanted to be was a soccer player, but she couldn’t because she had cerebral palsy,” Lien said.
“It’s been bad. 2019 was pretty hard, but we know it’s going to get better,” Lien said.
TIME TO GO HOME
Brent and Morgan were eager to get home and had an eye on the calendar at the end of October.
With Owen on the way, they also needed to get a car seat.
On Nov. 9, they finally walked through the door of their freshly cleaned house. Nearly two weeks later, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary with breakfast at the Dream Cafe.
A quick checkup followed at a Front Range clinic and everything was just about swell in a good, metaphorical way.
But even Morgan’s labor was a stressful time.
She was induced into labor earlier than her due date, on Nov. 24. “I was so excited,” Brent said. “She was nervous, but I was on cloud nine.”
Then labor turned into a cesarean section the next morning when Owen’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck twice, Brent said.
Owen Magill was born on Nov. 25 and Brent cried tears of joy when he held him the first time.
“It was probably the second best day of my life after marrying Morgan.”
“Oh, he’s so beautiful,” Morgan said. With all the stress for nearly her entire pregnancy, “sometimes I think, how did Owen make it?”
In fact, at one point, after tripping over her flip flops, Morgan was herself admitted to UCHealth just to make sure she and Owen were OK.
“Her strength is like nobody’s business,” Lien said. “She had this hidden strength that she didn’t know she had.”
With a new heart for Brent and new parenthood for both of them, 2020 has been a joy and a blessing, the Magills said.
They have found that baby Owen is wonderfully cuddly, has a remarkably strong neck and can toot well beyond his few months. You look at him and think, “is that you? You’re so tiny. That’s horrible!” Brent said.
“I wake up every day and I am happy and I am excited,” Brent said. “I’m on a good road to recovery.”
And while he won’t be returning to Pear Park to teach at least this school year, he’ll visit when he can because he misses his students.
“I enjoy being around those kids,” he said.
Morgan will return to work at Pear Park in February, and “it will be nice to see her in the halls,” Lien said
“You don’t know how many people love you until something happens,” Morgan said, recalling all the love and support she and Brent have received and continue to receive.
“I know everybody says it, but if you were to walk into Pear Park, it is a family,” Lien said. “It’s amazing.”
When hearts break, “sadly it brings us together. It reminds of why we are family,” Lien said.
“We are so happy that (Brent’s) heart took and that he’s doing so much better. And their little Owen is making our lives so happy … the little cutie,” she said.