PHOTOS BY ANGELINA MARIE

Jeff Jarnagin walks into Palace Coffee in Wolflin Square. His eyes bright, he speaks with enthusiasm about his friends and community. Friends like Anne Lankford have described him as “wickedly funny almost all the time,” and it’s true. That humor and joy, however, are hard-earned. Jeff has spent the last seven years battling for his life. By most accounts, he shouldn’t be here.

A long-time presence on the Amarillo Little Theatre stage and, more recently, on staff at the Ronald McDonald House, Jeff is well-known in this community. Shawn Walsh, a realtor with Realty Central and Jeff’s partner of 15 years, is a veteran in the local real estate community.

“I blindsided [Shawn] with all this,” Jeff says. “It has to be tough for him. He lets me scream when I need to scream and cry when I need to cry. He loves it more when I laugh when I need to laugh. But no matter what, he’s right by my side and has been through every single bit of it.”

At the Ronald McDonald House, Jeff helps provide accommodations for families while their children receive care in local hospitals, serving as the first face many families see when they enter. “It’s a rewarding job. For a moment in time, the families open up because they meet someone who’s there to help. We make it feel more like home,” he says.

Many of those families don’t know that Jeff himself was living with an illness, one that stole nearly half his waking hours and placed severe restrictions on his life. He’s spent the last few years looking at an early death. Jeff had become adept at making the most of a negative situation—until recently, when everything changed.

Going to Town

Jeff Jarnagin was raised in Wildorado, about 20 miles west of Amarillo. “When it came to Amarillo,” says Jeff, “we always said ‘We’re going to town!’” He began to explore his love of acting and theater early, taking part in speech and one-act plays.

While falling in love with the stage, he also felt the first twinge of future challenges. “I was 13 and woke up with these excruciating pains in my back. Mom and Dad took me to the emergency room.” His kidneys weren’t working. Together, the two kidneys only functioned like half a kidney. Doctors predicted he’d be on dialysis within five years. Jeff didn’t let that slow him down.

He moved to Amarillo and joined the staff of Amarillo Little Theatre, auditioning as often as he could. His personal favorite performance is Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the one people remember best is Peter Pan. According to fellow ALT performer Terry Martin, “I was in awe when I saw him magically flying across the stage. It was a moment I’ll never forget. It changed my life.”

Then came Jeff’s Los Angeles adventure. “I didn’t want to die regretting that I never tried living a dream,” he says. In the summer of 2013, Jeff quit his job at ALT and moved to LA to see if he could make that dream a reality.

He signed with Central Casting and got his feet wet in the industry. “I did background work for shows like Revenge. I missed the first two episodes of Agent Carter, but I was in the rest of the season.”

He also appeared in several short films. “We went to the film festivals, which was terrifying. Exciting, too. There was one competition at Warner Brothers Studios. I was standing at the back of the theater while someone tested the projector. All of a sudden, I was up on that huge screen. It was surreal,” he says.

Cindi Bulla, broker and owner of Realty Central and a fellow ALT performer, remembers the positive energy of that period. “Jeff is bigger than life. He just lights up a room. Shawn is the same way, and he’s also this beautiful human being who lights up Jeff. They were at this thrilling moment in their relationship,” she says. “Shawn had just gotten his realtor’s license. Both of them were looking toward the future and all of those possibilities. They were tailor-made to follow the path they were on.” 

Unfortunately, that path would soon be interrupted. 

Bittersweet Homecoming

Something was wrong in Jeff’s body. He felt it in LA and he felt it when he moved back to Amarillo. For one thing, he was exhausted. “I was sleeping, like a lot. I convinced myself, ‘You’re too old to be getting up at two o’clock in the morning and going to work.’ So, I came home and felt safer. But I didn’t do anything about it.”

He recognizes that he had been ignoring some pretty obvious warning signs. “I’m ashamed to say it, but I have to in case there are people telling themselves that it’s not what they think it is. At one point I looked at a list of 12 symptoms, and I had nine of them. I was coughing non-stop. I couldn’t [climb] stairs. Everyone kept telling me how skinny I was. Tumors were starting to pop up. I was throwing up every day.”

Finally, Jeff visited his urologist, Dr. Richard Kibbey. “He took one look at me and said, ‘I’m positive you have cancer,’” Jeff says. Kibbey sent him directly to the hospital, where doctors confirmed Jeff had stage three testicular cancer, bordering on stage four. “It had spread to my lymph nodes. When they did the first CT scan, the left side of my body lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Three months of intense chemo followed. Then Jeff endured five rounds of radiation. He started dialysis around the same time. Shawn was a source of strength, but so was the couple’s dog, Tucker. “He slept next to me, went to the bathroom with me when I got sick. I fainted one time, and he licked my face. That’s what brought me to.”

Jeff was declared cancer-free on April 26, 2016. A week later, Tucker was diagnosed with a canine version of the same cancer. “All the doctors and nurses said, ‘He took it from you. He helped cure you.’ He went through chemo too, and we got an extra year with him. We made the most of it,” Jeff says.

Jeff had beaten cancer, but the victory was bittersweet. The ordeal irreversibly damaged the weakest part of his body. “I’d made what was left of my kidneys last 30 years. It was cancer that finally knocked me down.”

Life with the Machine

“The Transplant Committee decided that I needed to remain cancer-free for five years before I could be considered for a kidney transplant. That meant at least five years of dialysis.” During dialysis treatment, a machine takes over the job of the kidneys, removing waste and extra fluid from the blood. 

The process takes a physical toll. Jeff had to quit his job at Amarillo Little Theatre—for the second time—and started working part-time at the Ronald McDonald House. “It was just too hard to go in after dialysis. My appointments were at 6:30 in the morning. I would come home, have some lunch, and sleep for six or seven hours.”

Dialysis demands a special diet. “No potatoes, no tomatoes, no avocados. No bananas. Nothing with high potassium or high phosphorus,” he says. “Phosphorus is in everything!”

Eventually, Jeff began to look and feel more like himself. “A lot of people had no idea. But it’s hard to deal with being held prisoner by a machine three times a week. It makes leading a normal life difficult. There was the depression that came along with the possibility of dying. You encounter that a lot at the clinic. All of a sudden, someone’s not there anymore, and someone hangs up their obituary.”

He had bad days, he says, but never felt he needed to visit a therapist. Then the first transplant went south.

Shattered Hope

After five cancer-free years, Jeff moved to the top of the national transplant waiting list. “You’re basically on call 24 hours a day,” he explains. “It’s nerve-wracking. You pack your bag, and you have to be ready to leave immediately. Just when you forget about it, they call.”

He started a GoFundMe. “We needed to cover housing and stuff like that. I’m fortunate that I have a huge army behind me. People come up to me and tell me that they’re praying for me, that they’re lifting me up. And I could totally feel it. I still can.”

Jeff and Shawn grew accustomed to false alarms. “There might be a match, but then they find something that makes them ineligible. One time, we got about a hundred miles away [from the transplant hospital] when they called and told us, ‘Stop, turn around, go home.’”

Finally, doctors found the right candidate for Jeff in June 2022. The surgery appeared to go well. After being released, Jeff and Shawn headed to their rented Airbnb. “Actually, we stopped and had lunch at a restaurant because I could eat anything I wanted,” he adds. “Then we went to our Airbnb.”

Jeff woke up that night to excruciating pain and extensive blood in his urine. They called an ambulance. “They gave me two doses of heavy painkillers, and it didn’t faze me,” he says. “I was in so much pain that I was blacking out.”

For a kidney transplant patient, this was a worst-case scenario. “They told me the kidney had fallen apart. I had internal bleeding, and they needed to take it out. I said, “Do it now, because I feel like I’m going to die.’”

Back home, he put on a brave face—this was another challenge to overcome—but found he couldn’t summon his usual positive mindset. “I was home for three weeks when I [admitted], ‘All I do is cry or scream. I can’t get out of this dark place.’ That’s when I started therapy.”

Part of what he was dealing with is guilt. “If the kidney had gone to somebody else, who knows? It might have worked. You run every possible thing through your brain to figure out why you feel the way you feel,” he says.

A Double-Edged Sword

In September 2022, Jeff was approved for the transplant list again. His doctors and nurses worried the emotional trauma of losing the first kidney might prevent him from accepting another. But he said yes, and in January 2023, Jeff received his second transplant from a young Amarillo resident who died in a tragic accident.

Jeff thinks of her constantly. “It came from someone precious. I call it my double-edged sword. Because it’s hard to be happy and sad at the same time. She’s my hero. She saved my life,” he says.

He felt better almost immediately. “I was bouncing off the walls,” he says, his face lighting up. “I had so much energy that there was no way for it to come out. That’s a feeling I haven’t had in a long time.”

Without the donated kidney, he would still be on dialysis, looking at a very limited lifespan in a broken-down body. That alone has made him a walking billboard for organ donation. It literally saved his life. “You can’t take that stuff with you,” he says of the human body. “It’s our shell, and you’re done with it. And if there are things that are still good in you”—like a fully functioning kidney— “why not share them with somebody else?”

As good as he feels, Jeff finds the emotional recovery a slower process. “Every morning, I make sure everything’s OK. If there’s any little twinge in my incision, I worry. I carry my arm right there to protect it. It’s precious.”

Accustomed to the stage, Jeff has spent a career putting himself inside the perspective of characters. But now he’s intent on experiencing every priceless moment of his own life, which he knows is a gift. “I definitely see life through different eyes. I want to live as much as I possibly can,” he says. One major goal is to find his way back onstage at Amarillo Little Theatre. “The thought of rejection still hovers over me. It will always hover over me all the time. So, in order to make it go away from my mind, I have to get back out there. And that’s what I plan to do.” 

Author

  • Ryan McSwain

    Ryan is the author of the horror thriller Monsters All the Way Down and the superhero meta fantasy Four Color Bleed. Alongside his fiction, he’s written for all the best industries in Texas. With his wife and two children, he’s happy to call Amarillo home. You can find him at ryanmcswain.com.

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