---- — LOWELL (AP) — It’s quite possible that cancer was what saved Tom McKay’s life.
For sure, a strange way of rationalizing a bad situation. Then again, that’s the kind of man McKay is.
To say the 66-year-old general manager of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium is a positive soul is akin to saying the sun is bright. In both cases, blindingly so.
McKay’s diagnosis 13 years ago of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer, means he’s constantly seeing his doctor for checkups. At age 53, he bested that setback quickly.
His next health hurdle was not as timid.
It was during one of those routine checkups when McKay took a trip through a CT scanner that doctors discovered two spots on his liver. That was March of 2010.
“That was a very tough day,” McKay recalled in a recent interview. “I was about as down as I could possibly be.”
McKay is upbeat even as he talks about one of the worst days of his life. As he spoke to a reporter inside an empty auditorium hall, McKay flashed that Irish smile that has won over city managers, business partners and regular strangers for decades. He paused to collect his thoughts and gazed out to the auditorium’s center floor, where the boxing ring was set up for the Golden Gloves tournament.
“I am almost shaking now, telling you about this,” McKay said as he began telling the story about his fight to live and his love of someone he’ll never meet.
McKay said his liver cancer was caused by an inherited disease called hemochromatosis, a condition in which the bloodstream is overloaded with iron. It’s one of the most common genetic diseases in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition can result in cirrhosis of the liver.
“I’ve been known around town to have a few cocktails and one of the first things my doctor said was, ‘You’ve got to stop drinking,’” McKay said. “They first thought that was what caused my liver cancer.”
He quit drinking anyway. McKay said it was easier than he thought it would be.
“I’m in show business,” he said. “It’s a social thing. It’s what you do.”
The strangest part for McKay was that he never felt any symptoms. Had it not been for the CT scan, he would have never found out about his diseased liver until it was too late. Once it was detected, doctors immediately placed him on a transplant list. For McKay, the word “transplant” still sounds strange.
“It sounds to me like something out of science-fiction movies,” he said.
The experience also brought him up close and personal with another term he thought he’d never know: organ donor.
Doctors laid out the transplant process for McKay. He said the information wasn’t “rosy.”
There were a number of factors standing in the way. McKay said the two spots on his liver meant the cancer had not yet spread. A third spot, however, would doom his chances of receiving another liver. Like in baseball, it would be three strikes and you’re out.
“That’s what the doctors call out of bounds,” he said. “You can’t get a transplant because they don’t want to waste a liver on cancer that would spread.”
His wife of 43 years, Lori, said McKay was still the same man she fell in love with decades ago despite the diagnosis.
“He was on a mission from the time he found out about the chance he’d go out of bounds,” she said recently over the phone.
Theirs is the type of relationship where Lori can tell if something is on Tom’s mind, and vice versa. She recalled those times when he’d feel “down.”
She’d do her best to be the “up” person.
“Being married all these years, you keep each other up at times when you know the other is going down,” she added.
McKay would discover that the New England region has one of the longest wait times in the country for liver donations. He was advised to head to the Mayo Clinic’s Florida and Minnesota locations. Countless airplane trips ensued. Even though doctors had McKay’s records from Boston, both hospitals insisted on running the same tests over and over again.
McKay said he had no idea how long it would take for his name to come up on a donor list.
With each passing day, there was the chance that the cancer would spread.
Then came the phone call he had been waiting for. It was the first week of February 2012. He remembers it was a Saturday night. McKay was at his home in Salisbury with Lori. He got a call at 6 p.m. from Mass General.
A new liver was waiting, doctors said. He was told to pack his bags and wait an hour for a follow-up phone call.
“All I thought about was how I should have had that liver,” McKay recalled about his reaction to the follow-up call, informing him that the liver was no longer available. “I gotta tell you, I couldn’t sleep. I was an emotional roller coaster for days.”
He discovered that his fleeting brush with a new liver did not mean he was nearing the top of the donor list. Following his setback, McKay did what he always does — put on a smile, hug his wife and go to Lowell the next day for work.
Then came Feb. 23. McKay said he remembers stopping at the Stadium Plaza Market Basket on his way home from work. He picked up a chicken to grill for dinner — Lori was spending the night with the grandchildren in Lowell.
“I was thinking of sneaking a huge bowl of ice cream that night,” he joked.
The phone rang again, this time with an offer of another liver. An hour later, it was for real. McKay recalled driving down Route 1 through Saugus, flying past the Hilltop Steakhouse and the Kowloon Restaurant at 80 mph.
“I’m wondering the entire time if I’ll ever see these places again,” he said.
He arrived at Mass. General at 11, just before Lori and his daughters showed up. He recalled cracking a joke to the nurses, something along the lines of not being late because it was impossible for the show to begin without him.
“They didn’t even crack a smile,” he said.
The procedure started at 3 a.m. McKay said another man was receiving a kidney from the same donor.
“It’s all about checking that box,” he said about the process of signing up to become an organ donor. “What you do by saving lives is probably the most important thing you can ever do in your entire life.”
McKay said doctors told him the normal time of hospitalization for a liver transplant was between 10 and 15 days. He walked out of Mass General in four, setting the hospital record.
Just two days later, he turned 66 years old.
“I said to my wife, what a birthday present,” he added.
Every day, McKay thinks about that donor he’ll never meet. He’s not sure where the donor was from or even whether it was a man or woman. Organ-donor laws forbid recipients from directly contacting the donor’s family, but McKay said he was able to pen a letter that the transplant center can then pass along.
He has not yet received a response.
Lori said there are mixed feelings as she and Tom approach the anniversary of his transplant.
“You know that in order for him to survive, someone else had to have lost someone,” she said. “And that’s constantly on my mind.
“Whoever they are, we’ll be thinking of them.”
At the auditorium, co-worker and friend Carmen Bellerose said the one thing she remembers about the day McKay first talked about his diagnosis was the fact he was more concerned for her than himself.
“It’s a family atmosphere here,” she said about the work relationships at the auditorium. “And even in the middle of this, he was always so positive.”
Within the next year McKay will retire from show business. It’s a strange feeling, he acknowledged, one that makes him feel nervous.
“I don’t want to just wake up in the morning and do nothing,” he said.
Yet waking up every morning has taken on a new meaning following the transplant. The sun is a little bit brighter, the air in Salisbury a little more refreshing. McKay knows what would have happened had doctors not discovered those two spots on his liver.
He was hesitant immediately after the transplant to talk publicly about his experience. But McKay said he wants the story to get out there so more people become donors.
“I’m an organ donor as well, although when my time comes, I don’t think they’ll be taking my liver,” he said.