Malcolm MacPhail has Overcome a Life of Job


New Hope Community Church Pastor Malcolm MacPhail was a 36-year-old father of four when he got the first of a series of devastating diagnoses. It was 1994 and he and his wife were in the process of closing escrow on a house when he learned that he had CML—chronic myeloid leukemia—which his doctor said would kill him in two years.

He tried to resign his job at the church, thinking he wouldn’t be much use, but the board refused to let him go. What they got was a pastor who has faced Job-like travails, and in overcoming them set an example for the congregation of what faith, perseverance and modern medicine can accomplish.

Today, he’s a chipper, gregarious character, with deep piercing blue eyes and a soothing voice that captures your attention and forces you to hang onto every word. He was a star at the Gilroy Garlic Festival’s “Be the Match” booth, sponsored by the Gilroy Rotary Club, which raised money and educated people about the need for bone marrow donors.

“My favorite line is to say: ‘The doctors were not able to save my life; but you could have,’” said MacPhail. “That you or someone you love or know or someone you don’t even know would only have one option to survive a life-threatening disease and your bone marrow would be their only hope. You are literally saving someone’s life, someone like me, if you’re a match. I also say ‘There is only a 20 percent chance you would match someone in your lifetime, so it really is a miracle.’”

Congregation members said MacPhail has been a role model.

“I think more than the pastor changing, I think it changed us as a congregation,” said Pamela Garcia. “I think it changed us more than him because we saw a miracle of God take place before our eyes.”

MacPhail’s life was never easy. A child of severe alcoholics, at 9 years old he found himself in juvenile hall, which led him to the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. He got a break when he was adopted by foster parents Tom and Yolanda Au Clair.

The couple provided him with love and guidance until he reached 18, at which point Malcolm ventured out on his own and lived the party life.

By his early 20s he found Christianity, and turned his life over to Christ. Not long after his conversion he met a young woman at church, Kathy Brown, and six months later they were married.

After attending bible college, Malcolm was hired by Capital Christian Center in Sacramento, where he remained for the next three years. Jobs followed in Modesto, then Santa Rosa, and in January 1992, they relocated to Gilroy where Malcolm accepted his first role as pastor.

Two years later, their lives were turned upside down.

“It was devastating because I had four children under eight, and I was 36 years old,” he said.

Kathy vividly recalls that day in the doctor’s office. Sitting across from her husband she started to hear a humming in her ears, and then she felt faint. It was at that moment Malcolm reached out and grabbed her hands.

“Kathy, I’m not going to die with cancer, I’m going to live with cancer, I’m going to be okay.”

Over the next decade, faced with unthinkable challenges, many times Kathy would tell God she couldn’t do this, and ask for help, and then she would find herself doing it.

“That’s when my faith became super real to me,” Kathy said, adding, “You only need to have faith as big as a mustard seed.”

The only treatment available for Malcolm was an experimental drug, interferon, used on AIDS patients. Although the medication made him sick every day, he continued taking it for the next four years.

At that point he’d experienced kidney problems and was told by Kaiser there wasn’t anything more they could do.

Undaunted by this setback, Malcolm switched to Stanford, where they began a worldwide search for a bone marrow donor, his only chance for survival.

The search proved difficult, as he had a rare gene, which made finding a perfect match, six out of six, next to impossible. Stanford’s policy required nothing less, so they too eventually released him.

Malcolm again offered his resignation.

Not only wouldn’t the church accept his resignation, the entire congregation prayed for him, and spread the news throughout the community.

“The community of Gilroy was amazing, people we didn’t even know would walk up and say, we’re praying for you,” Malcolm said.

This included the Gilroy Rotary Club, which began holding bone marrow donor drives in an effort to help their fellow Rotarian, which still continues each year at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. And Malcolm continues to be their “poster boy.”

Never one to quit, Malcolm researched and found the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which accepted a three out of six donor match.

The last day of the center’s search, Malcolm received a call saying a five out of six match had been found, but he would still only have a 30 percent chance of survival.

“I said great, you give me 30 percent, and God gives me 100 percent, I got 130 percent. I’m on the plus side, so let’s go.”

Surgery was scheduled for March 1999, and the entire family moved to Seattle to prepare for the procedure.

The day of the operation, the donor’s blood was transported from Charleston, North Carolina, to Seattle, where MacPhail received the transplant at 11 p.m. that same evening.

The marrow was injected into a catheter in his chest, which filtered into his bloodstream.

For the next six months Malcolm remained in isolation due to the massive doses of chemotherapy he’d received prior to the surgery, lethal dosages, that destroyed not only the bone marrow, but also his immune system.

“He had to wear this mask, it looked like Darth Vader, it was horrific looking,” Kathy said.

When they returned to Gilroy, MacPhail continued his isolation for six more months.

“My wife had to bleach door knobs, everything had to be bleached. If she pulled a can of soup out of the cupboard, she had to wipe it down with a cloth, no dust, no germs.”

Stanford released him in December 1999, telling him, “you’re good, you’re normal.” In January 2000 he returned to work, part-time, and a month later, he caught a cold. His Kaiser physician gave him a shot of penicillin. Ten days later, he woke up “as red as a lobster.”

His donor was allergic to penicillin.

“The Red Cross in Charleston must not have told Seattle, Seattle didn’t tell Stanford, Stanford didn’t tell Kaiser, no one knew,” Malcolm said.

His system shut down completely, he fell into a coma-like state, his body was in rejection, which produced a fungal infection, Aspergillus, a disease most AIDS patients die from. Malcolm remained in the coma for weeks.

“I was in such a state of shock because I couldn’t believe this happened again,” Kathy said, adding, “I needed him to tell me he was going to be okay.”

Of the six physicians supervising Malcolm’s case, five of them said he wouldn’t survive. The sixth doctor disagreed.

“For some reason, for Malcolm’s case, I don’t think it’s going to happen that way” the doctor told Kathy.

Two days later Malcolm woke up. He remained at Stanford for five months before returning home. By 2003, he was completely drug free.  

“The new system finally wins, that’s the beauty of the bone marrow transplant,” Malcolm said, adding, “The new system takes over and wins. It’s amazing, it’s a miracle.”

You would think at this point the couple’s struggle would be over, but you’d be wrong.

In the middle of a night in 2013, Malcolm woke up hot, sweating profusely. He asked Kathy to call 911. On the way to the hospital, he went into full cardiac arrest.

“It was the widow maker—he was 90 percent blocked,” Kathy said.

Prior to the heart attack, Kathy had planned a surprise celebration for their upcoming 30th wedding anniversary, renting a beach house in Monterey.

Six days after Malcolm’s heart attack and operation, the couple celebrated more than three decades of extraordinary triumphs, and devastating defeats, when they renewed their wedding vows on the beach in Monterey.

“I feel like most people can go through their whole life and not feel loved,” Kathy said. “I feel, Malcolm and I, we’ve gone through our life and feel so loved. I feel very spoiled.”

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