Jay Marvin talks about his health crisis

AM 760 morning talk-show host Jay Marvin has spent the last several months fighting for his life. He's been in and out of the hospital for a variety of serious health concerns since early March, and aside from occasional updates provided by his wife, Mary, on the radio and his Facebook page, most of his fans have only an inkling about how he's really doing. To address this issue, he invited yours truly to his Denver-area home yesterday afternoon, offering an intimate look at his continuing struggles, the challenges that remain ahead, and the group that's helping him to battle a spate of illnesses and infections that hold the risk of permanent paralysis or death.

Jay's bed is currently set up in the living room of the Marvin home. He spends most of his day there strapped into a brace that prevents him from twisting or turning in ways that might permanently damage his spine. A table directly in front of him bears a copy of Bonfire of Roadmaps, a book by Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely -- Marvin loves authentic country music of the sort Ely represents -- and he's opposite a TV he watches during his more alert moments. Beneath the set are oxygen tanks; he's on oxygen 24/7. A metal rack holding an IV bag stands at the head of the bed -- Mary gives him two rounds of antibiotics daily, back to back -- while a tray a few feet away holds more than a dozen medications and/or dietary supplements he must ingest on a daily basis. He also takes a regular regimen of painkillers, which on this day have left him groggy. His trademark voice is weakened but clear, and his lids tend to slowly lower during conversation, only to flip up again, like blinds whose cord he's suddenly yanked.

At this point, Jay's sense of time is a bit unsteady. When he claims to have been ill for five weeks, Mary, sitting on the nearby living-room sofa, gently corrects him, noting that his medical odyssey actually began this past winter.

"I don't remember much," Jay acknowledges.

"Thank goodness," Mary interjects.

"They gave me a lot of drugs," he says. "I was really, really in pain. They had to quiet my nerves down. They have this old saying: 'Get on top of the pain.' And that's what they did... I was out of it completely. We've all done our share of drugs, but nothing like this... The only thing I remember is just immense waves of pain throughout the whole thing... That's what I remember. I remember pain.

"The pain is constant," he adds. "Right now, on a scale of one to ten, it's about a two. It always stays. It never totally leaves.... Since February, I haven't lived a day without some kind of pain."

"One of his doctors said the dosage he's on would make most of us comatose," Mary notes. "But the pain is so bad he's still alert."

Mary traces Jay's illness to "the weekend of February 26th and 27th. He thought he had the flu. He went into work on Monday and Tuesday, and then he said, 'I feel like I've been hit by a truck...'" On March 3, she took him to the hospital, and three days later, he had his gallbladder removed -- and he was subsequently sent home. However, his pain grew more severe, rather than subsiding, over the course of a week, and upon his return to the hospital, doctors discovered that he was suffering from hepatitis -- "not the contagious kind," Mary emphasizes. "The kind you get from Budd-Chiari syndrome," a liver-related ailment generally caused by blocked veins.

Then, to make matters worse, Jay's medical team, which includes Denver Nuggets team physician Dr. Saurabh Mangalik and his partner, Dr. David Mellman, discovered a large growth along Jay's spine, in the vicinity of the T7 and T8 vertebrae. In an attempt to discover its makeup, they ordered a surgical biopsy that required them "to make incisions of three inches in front, three inches in back and an inch on his side," Mary says. They also had to collapse one of his lungs, precipitating an extended stay in intensive care. "Synchronizing lungs after one of them has been collapsed can sometimes be tricky," Mary explains.

Tests revealed that the mass was an anarobic infection -- one capable of growing without oxygen. In addition, Jay had "osteomyelitis and discitis, which means there was an infection between the bone and the disc and the spine," she says. "The T7 vertebrae crumbled or collapsed and was pushing on the spinal column at a 40 degree angle."

This collapsing vertebrae is capable of causing spinal damage, but doctors were reluctant to address the situation while the infection still raged. Their approach: use antibiotics to kill the infection, then operate. That way, they can fuse his vertebrae, and eliminate the risk of paralysis, by entering his body from the back instead of the front and back simultaneously via a procedure that would be considerably more dicey than the one employed during the biopsy. If Jay starts to lose feeling in his extremities, they'll operate sooner, but they'd prefer to wait.

With that in mind, Jay was sent home to convalesce. At present, he's able to get up with the aid of Mary and a number of household modifications. "They had to install bars around the toilet and grab bars, support bars in the shower," Jay says. "They had to put in a shower seat. It's very, very easy to slip in the shower.... And I've got a personal trainer -- a physical therapist. He comes by once a week and gets me out of bed, makes me do exercises" -- the kind that help build strength without putting strain on his back.

Jay has also gotten to take walks outside, albeit very short ones. When Jay's friends visit, Mary recruits them to help her support him. About the furthest he's gone thus far has been the end of his driveway -- and sometimes the trek leaves him so fatigued that he can't make it back into the house even with asssistance. Now, Mary brings along a chair on wheels in case he runs out of gas.

At this point, Jay concedes, even the simplest tasks are difficult. "Sometimes my conversations don't make any sense," he says. "And I've been trying all day to write this friend of mine on my iPhone, and I can't get it done. I keep screwing it up. I don't even know where the damn thing is. I can't find it now, and Mary will have to get up and look for it." Mary takes the cue, discovering the IPhone behind him -- inches away but out of reach.

The message, by the way, was intended for Ken Bruen, an acclaimed Irish author who lives in Galway. "If it wasn't for him and, of course, Mary, who's just been wonderful, I don't know how I would have made it. Ken is not only a great writer, but he's been a total and complete cheerleader." Not that Bruen believes in coddling Jay: "I send him e-mails about how bad I feel, and he scolds me all the time," he points out.

Jay expresses appreciation for all of those who've wished him well on his Facebook page and assorted websites -- "I read them all, but I can't answer them," he says -- and he's got kind words as well for Lee Larsen and Kris Olinger, executives at Clear Channel Denver, which encompasses AM 760.

Still, Jay saves his choicest compliments for his wife. "Mary tries to keep things light," he allows. "She tells me constantly that I can do things.... I can't go to the bathroom by myself yet, and Mary gets up and helps me, even if it's three o'clock in the morning. I don't think you could ask for a lifemate as dedicated and loving as she is."

"Let me go polish my halo," Mary jokes, before telling him, "You would do the same for me."

"I don't know if I could do it to that degree," he says. "In 56 years, I've never been this sick."

To distract himself from his discomfort, Jay concentrates on a second novel he's in the midst of shaping, and he's also considered writing about his ongoing health issues. Radio's on his mind as well. Before he got sick, he felt that "my show was really getting good. I made all the changes I thought I should make. Things were panning out." Fortunately, he's been pleased with the performance of David Sirota, who's been filling in for him -- although he won't be on the air for several weeks because of a long-planned trip to China. (Right now, AM 760 is airing the syndicated Bill Press program in the slot.) The only time Jay smiles during my visit is when he's asked about a broadcast debate between Sirota and KOA right-winger Mike Rosen -- one during which the usually unflappable Rosen occasionally lost his cool. Jay didn't hear their conversation, but he's gotten reports from friends who felt Sirota more than held his own. "I could have told Rosen not to debate Sirota," Marvin says. "I've seen Sirota on MSNBC take on two or three conservatives and just take them apart."

Later today, Jay is scheduled for a CT scan, and if it shows that the infection is gone, back surgery could get underway as early as July. If not, more months could pass as long as he remains stable -- but Jim Lowe, a family friend and competitive Porsche driver who's also a neurosurgeon, is urging him to act as if the operation is imminent. "Jim wants Jay to act like he's training to do the 24 hours at Daytona," Mary says.

He's trying to comply. After he learned about the mass on his back, and the prospect of spinal injury, Mary says that "he stopped eating almost totally. He ate the equivalent of three sandwiches in six weeks." But he's taking better care of himself now, due in part to lessons that he's learned since he initially fell ill.

"Every second of your life is important," Jay says. "You should live to the fullest. And don't take the people who love you for granted. They don't have to do it. They're doing it because they love you."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts