To JIM NABORS, THE REALIZATION WAS as grim and alien as the emaciated face that stared back at him in his bathroom mirror. “It was like a bad B movie,” He says, “where you’re looking at your reflection and your eyes have become sunken, your face is gray, and your skin is just hanging off your bones.”
But there was no one to yell “Cut!” It was three weeks before Christmas last year, and Nabors—who has retained a loyal following as a singer since retiring goofy Gomer Pyle’s fatigues back in 1969—had just arrived at his vacation ranch in Whitefish. Mont., after a brief concert tour. But before he could settle in. he says, “my legs and arms began to swell, and my stomach blew up so big I looked like I was pregnant.” His doctor ordered him to fly at once to the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “That’s when I knew I was in deep trouble,” he says.
Nabors now knows just how much trouble he was in: His liver had failed, irreversibly damaged by the hepatitis type B virus. Only a transplant could save him. In the nick of time last February, he received a new liver in a 5½-hour operation, and today the rubber-faced 63-year-old is convalescing in his two-bedroom condominium in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. Grocery bags full of notes from well-wishers fill one side of his living room. “I’m not a high-profile person anymore, so I was dumbfounded by the thousands of letters I got,” Nabors says. “It’s hard to believe so many people care.”
Last December life seemed far less promising. For months, Nabors had been feeling constant fatigue. “I noticed my legs would swell whenever I’d fly,” he says, “but people said, ‘Oh, that’s normal.’ ” Nabors had known he was carrying the hepatitis B virus, but until the Mayo doctors gave him their diagnosis he hadn’t been particularly concerned about it. Now he was. On a visit to India about 10 years ago, he had shaved with a straight razor, he says, “and I ended up cutting my face to shreds. Then I got in the shower.” Doctors say it would be unusual, but not impossible, to contract the disease as Nabors believes he did-from the tainted shower water hitting his open wounds. The virus was discovered a month or two later during his annual physical at the Mayo Clinic. “The doctors told me, ‘We’ll keep an eye on it.’ ” For years, Nabors, feeling fine, kept touring, dividing free time between his Montana ranch and his oceanfront home in Hawaii. “Nobody cautioned me,” he says. “I didn’t know hepatitis was life-threatening.”
As if the need for a liver transplant weren’t frightening enough, Nabors learned that because hepatitis B would always be in his bloodstream, a threat to a new liver, he might not be accepted as a transplant recipient. “I was at a total loss,” says Nabors. “I knew I only had a short time to live.”
Reaching out, he first called his sister Ruth Collins, 66, in Hawaii. “I was just devastated,” says Ruth, who flew to Montana the next day. (Jim’s other sister, Freddie, 67, who lives in the Naborses’ hometown of Sylacauga, Ala., joined them soon after.) Says Ruth: “We’ve been buddies forever. Everybody thinks I’m his mother. In fact, mother used to say, ‘Where does that leave me?’ ”
Nabors’ second call went to his best friend, Carol Burnett. “Jim spent 10 minutes making me laugh,” she says, “and I was still laughing when he said, ‘Honey, I’ve got something to tell you.’ ” Burnett sprang into action, searching for a top liver specialist and finding Dr. Gary Gitnick of the UCLA School of Medicine in Los Angeles, who submitted Nabors’ name to a list of transplant hopefuls.
Nabors was deemed an acceptable candidate after all-largely, Dr. Gitnick says, because “all his other organs were functioning well, and without says, “I felt a little presumptuous asking for more life because God has blessed me with so much. So I told God, ‘Do what you will.’ ”
At the same time, Nabors’ friends, including Dom DeLuise, Marilyn Horne and Phyllis Diller, rallied to his side. “Friends were flying in from all over the world,” says pal Florence Henderson. “Jim’s been so giving-he treats people in such a kind, respectful way-everybody simply wanted to give back.”
But Nabors’ destiny was largely in the hands of a computer programmed to match transplant patients with suitable donor organs. “Everybody thinks you move to the head of the line because you’re famous,” Nabors says. “But the computer doesn’t know what [Gomer’s] ‘Well, gaahhly!’ is.” Adds Gitnick: “There’s no weight given to a person’s position or philanthropic background. A person cannot force himself onto the list.” And even a place high on the list is no guarantee that a matching organ will become available in time. Nabors’ call came at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 6.
Although doctors explained there was a chance he could die on the operating table, he felt, as lie went into surgery on Feb. 7, that “this was my shot. When you come right down to it, you come here by yourself and you’re going to leave by yourself. But I had great faith I would see my friends and family again.”
Awakening in intensive care, he recalls, “the first thing I heard was a nurse telling me, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ I had eight tubes coming out of me and a scar that looked like a Mercedes emblem.”
Nonetheless, Nabors was out of the hospital in two weeks instead of the usual four-a recovery he attributes to having “always taken good care of myself, never being into drugs or booze.” He plans to promote organ donations, and he and Burnett are discussing making a video for hospitals in which Nabors would calm and reassure nervous transplant candidates.
Nabors is not altogether over the hump. Hepatitis B remains in his system and could at some point infect his new liver. To keep this from happening, he is receiving large doses of a gamma-globulin serum as well as drugs to ward off rejection. “Jim will be on some drugs the rest of his life,” says Gitnick. “But right now we’re giving him lower and lower doses. He’s gaining weight and strength, and every sign tells us he’s doing as well as we could have hoped. And the more time that goes by, the better the outlook.
Nabors recently returned to Hawaii but will make monthly trips to UCLA for checkups for at least a year. In May he plans to perform at UCLA at a reunion of transplant survivors, and he hopes to be touring by year’s end. Also, Savoy Pictures has announced plans for a Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. feature film-and guess who would love to play the hapless Marine’s pop? “I feel the worst is behind me,” says Nabors. “I feel positive about the future and I’m grateful—very, very grateful-for this extension I’ve been granted.”
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles