For a 57-year-old Ottawa comic in need of a new liver, Mike MacDonald is in a good space these days. Comedians from coast-to-coast are holding fundraisers for Canada’s legendary King of Stand-up Comedy, raising money to help MacDonald pay his medical bills as he battles the Hepatitis C virus that he contracted in 2011, and that is destroying his liver. MacDonald has returned to Ottawa from Los Angeles and is staying at his mother’s house while he undergoes treatment. His spirits were raised by a recent tribute at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, hosted by Howie Mandel.
MacDonald is not yet on the waiting list for a liver transplant and so he is following a special diet and exercise program to get in better shape. He looks surprisingly healthy for what he’s been through. “I’m feeling great right now,” MacDonald said when interviewed by Ottawa Life on August 24. “I feel way better than I did last year. I just got blood tests back a couple of days ago and my liver has not gotten worse than last year! The main thing is I’m maintaining.” MacDonald has filmed a TV spot for the Canadian Liver Foundation, raising awareness about Hep C and emphasizing the importance of getting tested.
The Mike MacDonald Interview
As told to Harvey Chartrand
How do you keep your spirits up while waiting for a liver transplant?
Mike MacDonald: At first, I was really – what’s the right word… I wouldn’t say annoyed or impatient, but I was wondering, like because I was so naïve about the whole Hep C thing to begin with but then, once I had my first assessment meeting in Toronto, my eyes were opened to all the protocols and all the tests that had to be performed. As we speak right now, I’m still not on the official waiting list for a cadaver donor. My second assessment meeting is on August the 29th and there’s still a series of meetings that I have to go to – a couple of last-minute tests and stuff. Applications for the Trillium-based insurance plan (Drug Coverage Program). It will take another four to six weeks to see if I’m accepted on that. All these protocols still have to be put in place and decided yes or no. And if they’re all yes and accepted and this and that, only then will I be accepted on the cadaver waiting list for a liver transplant. And only then will they even consider an application from a living donor.
I’ve had three or four really good ideal prospects from a couple of people I don’t even know. Thank God I was nice to them at some point. Young comics who say: “You inspired me 15 years ago to do comedy. I’d really like to be a living donor and give you a portion of my liver.” The liver regenerates itself. We’re talking about a person who is a non-smoker, non-drinker, the same size as me. His wife is a nurse. They know exactly the procedure. They’ve been checking with the doctors, so they’re just waiting. The outpouring of prayers and good wishes has been overwhelming. The generosity on Facebook since I started this whole thing… you know, gone public with it. The Canadian Liver Foundation, etc. It’s just been overwhelming. The minor criticism of, you know, “who’s this celebrity thinks he can jump in the line” is ludicrous. That’s the cool thing about Canada is everybody (is entitled). The waiting list is based on need and you have to match the blood type and stuff like that. There is no walking in there and (curmudgeonly voice) “here’s this celebrity who’s squandered his fortune and now he’s come back to Canada from L.A. and wants free health care.” First of all, there is nothing for free. You have to pay into OHIP. I’m a Canadian citizen. I’ve lived the majority of my life in Canada. I’ve always worked in Canada. I’ve always paid taxes. So like – what, because I’m a celebrity I shouldn’t have used that? I should just sit there and die, you know what I mean? I’m sittin’ there goin’, what the hell is wrong with you people?
Are you saying the authorities have found a proper donor for you but are obstructing the process?
Mike MacDonald: It’s not that they’re obstructing. It’s the protocols which I’m accepting and which is fine. Like at first I was wondering “why is it taking so long?”
Meanwhile, are you trying out various alternative therapies or naturopathic medicines to keep your energy levels up? How do you feel today?
Mike MacDonald: The fact that they’ve taken the time that they take has given me a chance to do research and to actually take part in alternative healing and, quite frankly, I feel way better than I did last year. I’ve been doing these intensive therapy sessions with a guy that… unfortunately, I can’t go into real detail about what it is. It’s not just herbal stuff. It’s brand-new technology. It’s not necessarily approved by the Canadian Medical Association. I had to sign a waiver with the guy not to reveal the exact contents. But I just got blood tests back a couple of days ago actually, and my liver has not gotten worse than last year! Before, I had the big infection that caused me to go to the Ottawa Civic Hospital for three weeks where they pulled out six gallons of bile from my stomach. (The doctors said:) “Instead of waiting 2½ years for a liver transplant, we have to phone Toronto and you have to get on that waiting list right away.” Blah-blah-blah. So I’m actually glad that the protocols have taken their time and will take some more time because I’m feeling great right now. My comedian friends have said that my mind is sharper. When they phone me, they say my voice is back. Like, last year, I sounded like the Godfather on stage. (weird Godfather imitation) Audiences were going: “louder, louder.” No energy and now I’m back. Bing, bing, bing. So far, so good. And the next blood tests will reveal if I’m getting any better. Like a couple of numbers dropped but they’re inconsequential. The main thing is I’m maintaining.
I’ve had some quacks along the way… people who go (used car salesman voice) “I have a magic potion” and there’s 200 bucks goodbye, out the window, whatever. But it’s given me time to check out stuff, because I’ve heard horror stories on both sides. Surgery is always a gamble. For me, I don’t want to get too sick where I can’t handle the surgery, but right now I’m stronger, you know, so if I had to have surgery, it’s better that I’m stronger going into surgery than to be really frail to the point where they go: “You won’t be able to handle surgery so get your affairs in order and say goodbye to everybody. That’s it for you!” But you never know. Like I said, I’ve heard horror stories on both sides.
There are friends that have come up from the past… There’s a guy in Toronto. He’s a firefighter; he’s still active after 12 years. He has his own alternative healing stuff. He just contacted me a week and a half ago. I’m going to check out what he’s doing. He has resisted doctors and experimental drug plans and he’s doing okay. And that’s 12 years. And I’m going: well, 12 years, that’s pretty good.
You know, surgery’s scary. When I went down for my assessment, they were telling me that even with a liver transplant, the Hep C can come back and destroy the new liver faster than the old one. The side effects from the anti-rejection drugs that you would have to take for the rest of your life could cause cancer or you could have diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. And I’m sitting there going, “Gee, I hope you’re telling me the worst-case scenarios.” Why would anybody want a liver transplant if this was going to happen to everybody? So they must have to tell you this to warn you, but still it’s just like – wow!
Through my connection with the liver foundation, which I found kind of funny at the beginning because when I went public with my illness and they asked me to do public service announcements for them to get tested for Hep C and stuff, I said “sure” and they were surprised. “You’re our first celebrity!” I asked about other celebrities, whether they would do it. Most celebrities are hesitant to do anything with liver disease because most people assume they’re alcoholics. What kind of logic is that? And it’s also part of the minor criticism that I’ve had on Facebook about people who think, well, he doesn’t deserve a liver transplant because he probably got Hep C due to his drug abuse 25 years ago with heroin and cocaine. But if you start to think that way, if everybody on the waiting list shouldn’t be on the waiting list because of something they did wrong early in their life… Well, a lot of people don’t eat healthy. A lot of people smoke, drink, do drugs. I’m not a mathematician or a scientist or a doctor but I would say… what… half the waiting list, half the people shouldn’t be on that list according to the mistakes they made in life. I mean, come on! (laughs)
The cool thing about Canada’s health system, after living in the U.S., is at least in Canada we try to help people. We try to have socialized health care. But in the States it’s like, “You got the money? No. Then go somewhere else to die. Get out.” My wife, who unfortunately has been physically separated from me for the last year because she’s still down in Glendale, California, finishing the renovations on the house, trying to sell the house and ironically this whole thing started with the two of us saying “let’s move back to Canada.” Let’s move back to Ottawa specifically because we have family there. This is where I started high school, my father being in the military. This is where I plan to die (maybe not die exactly here on this day, but I certainly plan to be buried or cremated or scatter my ashes here). This is the place. Keep it green. Keep it clean. Keep it safe. This is the city.
I spent 10 years in Toronto doing the stand-up and it was exciting at times, but some of the people there – whoah! Hey, it’s not New York, folks. Get over it! And the traffic – you can have it! You know what I mean? It was fun for a while, but hoo boy, get over yourselves. You’re not the best in the world. I’ve been to New York, and you’re not New York, okay? I’ve been all over Canada. Parts of Vancouver Island are nice, but Ottawa’s green too, thank you very much. I’ll take Ottawa over any city. French bilingualism… We should keep up with the French. Can’t we all get along? Ottawa Senators. My mother, God bless her soul, every day she’s saying: “Alfie’s coming back.” And “that son of a bitch Bettman, get him out of there before he ruins Alfie’s comeback. He’s gotta play one more season.” I am totally in agreement, Mom. Okay, let’s go! I want to see the Senators win the Stanley Cup once before my mother dies and certainly a couple of times before I die.
So even before you had the symptoms of liver failure, you were thinking of coming back to Ottawa.
Mike MacDonald: Absolutely. We decided and then my father took sick. He had a long struggle with diabetes and broke his pelvis and then he had a sudden heart attack. Thank God I was here with the family. Ottawa was his last posting in the military. My really formative years were at Brookfield High School. That’s where I started my career. This is where I consider home. I’ve always been a Canadian citizen and there was no need to change, even when I was living in the States. People ask: “Why’d you move to Hollywood?” Well, unfortunately, they didn’t build Hollywood in Ottawa. (laughs) They built Hollywood in L.A. – the worst place they could build it – and I had to go. Ever since I was a kid watching Bugs Bunny, oh, life doesn’t have to be so serious. Go crazy and then it was: “Oh Hollywood, let’s go to Hollywood, just like in The Beverly Hillbillies or The Grapes of Wrath.” So I had to go, but the irony was once I got there, it was like my Hollywood that I wanted to be part of was already on its way out. And the New Hollywood was just like – who are you guys, whoah! And I found out real soon that the only consistency is that there is no consistency. You only hold your breath when you’re underwater. My favorite joke down there was you can tell who your friends are because they’re the ones who stab you in the chest! (big laughs) It’s like, wow, this place is crazy. Let’s get out of here. And I spent too much time down there. (desperate voice) Okay, we’ll make one big score and then we’ll get back to Canada! So I was trying to make the big score and then you found out that like after three specials on TV and stuff… like here, socialized medicine is great, Canada, but socialized entertainment, uh-uh… not so great. So that’s partly why I left too because I kept on getting the thing: “Well, you’ve had your turn three times.” What? That’s it? Although I looked around and there were exceptions. Well, how come this guy is always on the TV? How come I can’t be on the TV like that guy? I don’t want to mention any names. But there are people (in Canada) when you look at TV they’re there all the time. Why do they get to be there all the time? I had plenty of material. I could have done more specials. Then all of a sudden there were people saying: “You’ve had your turn, Mike!” And so I said, well, if I had my turn here, maybe they’ll give me another turn down there.
But when I went down there (to the States), all of a sudden I realized – oh, wait a minute, it’s not like sports. Just because you can beat the clock doesn’t mean you’re going to get to the Olympics. And I went (makes sound of balloon deflating) and that caused me to go crazy and the bipolar thing happened. I dealt with that card and I came back to Canada and I started working strictly in Canada. I turned my back on American audiences. The States changed when Bush got into office. Audiences didn’t want to hear nothing about reality. They didn’t want to hear the truth. Thank God there were warriors out there like Jon Stewart… they were still trying to tell people the truth. But the clubs – forget it. I had friends, peer group people that I respected – people who were getting beat up in the parking lot after the show for – what? – a joke! And I went – whoah! Canadian audiences. Just for Laughs. Thank God! All the American comics who were coming up here were saying: “These Canadian audiences… they’re great!” What’d I tell you? Don’t tell me about your American audiences, please! Saturday Night Live really goes after politicians and guess what, it’s headed by a Canadian! Lorne Michaels, a Canadian. Check up his history. Remember the Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour (that aired on CBC Television in 1970 and 1971), for you historians out there? I still remember growing up watching that. It’s always the Canadians that come up and go: “Look, the emperor has no clothes!” That’s our forte. What makes it so funny? Because we (Canadians) see the emperor has no clothes!
How are your days spent now?
Mike MacDonald: I lead a very active life. It’s weird, because right now I’m on a tighter schedule than I ever was. Right now it’s so hard to get the writing in, because it’s like, on the one hand there’s a literary agent that wants me to keep on sending him stuff for a memoir book… autobiographical memoirs and then I do the ultimate healing sessions which are really intense four-or five-hour sessions. And then people who want to see me who haven’t seen me. A documentary guy wants to get a documentary made. Then I gotta do the thing and the other thing. It’s always something. And there’s like at least a hundred messages a day on e-mail and Facebook. I just can’t be rude. I can’t get on my high horse and say (asshole voice) I just don’t have time to answer hundreds of e-mail messages! I try to do the best I can. The thing that gets me through everything is staying positive. Although I continually get disappointed with organized religion, I have a very strong faith in God. I pray every day and that keeps me going. But the moment you say “God bless” and you say you believe in Jesus Christ, you get the religious fanatics coming at you, saying you should come here, you should go there. No, no, no, no, it’s a personal thing. I don’t thrust my beliefs on anybody. I get people on Facebook saying “you should do this and you should do that.” If I did everything you want me to do, there would be no time to do anything else.
So your life isn’t as circumscribed as some people might think.
Mike MacDonald: The good thing is I’m not sitting around self-pitying, going (whiny voice) oh, when is my liver transplant going to happen? I’m active. I exercise every day. I have to keep up the regimen. It’s not good to just sit around. Things like this interview. It’s flattering in one way, but hopefully I can get out something that will inspire something in somebody to do something. On the other side of the coin, what the hell do I know – I’m just a comedian. (laughs)
Do you still feel like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, realizing the positive impact you’ve had on so many lives?
Mike MacDonald: I am continually amazed at stuff that I… First of all on Facebook when they say stuff and then it brings back a memory and I go “Oh my God.” Or stuff that I was completely unaware of. Then I go: “Thank God I wasn’t a son of a bitch all the time!” Because there were portions of my early career where I was just angry. I thought I knew everything. Nobody could tell me nothin’! Leave me alone! And I keep hearing these stories about how I was nice to them. On this night I did this and I took the time to talk to this comic and I think: Thank God, really, I mean… So the outpouring of prayers and good wishes is continuous. How are you doing? Nothing but love. It’s just really overwhelming. It’s hard to take sometimes because I’ve just never been like that. It’s the way I was raised, with my father being of Scottish background, Maritimers and stuff, they just never were into the touchy-feely kind of thing, you know? Whereas my mother’s side of the family… My dad met my mother in Metz, France. That’s where I was born, so I’ve got the French thing. The French, you know, they kiss and hug when you come out of the bathroom! They haven’t seen you in two minutes and it’s like – Oh, chéri, where you been? I been in the bathroom! (makes kissing sounds). Wine, bread, true love everyone! So the dichotomy of the two was always kind of wild. And it’s always black and white, bipolar, this and that, up and down. It’s always the duality of everything in my life.
What it all comes down to at the end of the day, if they put a gun to my head and they said, what’s the answer, the only thing as I grow older, the only thing I can really testify to is: “Love is better than Hate!” I know it sounds simplistic, coming from an old Beatlemaniac, but what else can you not debate besides “love is better than hate”? And that’s it. I love Ottawa and this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. And love is better than hate.
And these are the things that keep me going. And I love my wife. I’ve been married something like 25 years now. You stop counting after 20, because of the sense of commitment. I can’t imagine anything else, you know. I don’t want to imagine anything else. And because of my imagination I don’t wander anywhere else. Because I imagined it already. Like you know I see another woman. I look at her and I can imagine my whole life with her. And I go, yeah, that was alright. But anyways I got my wife. Why should I stray? What? A one-night stand and then in the morning I go: “Oh my God. What have I done? My wife is going to be hurt!” It’s not worth somebody else’s pain… your momentary pleasure. So that’s why I don’t understand… why everybody’s running around with all these superficial problems like that. It’s just ludicrous.
So despite the health concerns, you’re glad to be back here. It’s not like you’re “stuck in Ottawa” waiting to get back to L.A. or New York or wherever.
Mike MacDonald: No. That’s the irony. We were going to move back here to begin with. Then the Hep C just sort of said: Okay, now!
What were the first symptoms?
Mike MacDonald: It was weird. When I look back, had I not been overmedicated with the bipolar medication, because as soon as I got here, my Ottawa doctor, who I think is far better than the American doctor who was treating me, he cut my bipolar medication by about 75%… 80%. And I haven’t had any “episodes”… you know, no anger, no fists through the walls, nothing. No severe depression, nothing. I’m fine, healthy, exercising and pretty positive. I get a little annoyed at the minor criticisms. Because it’s just like: Wow! These people just don’t know what’s going on. But other than that, it’s been pretty cool, you know.
But at the time, in Glendale with my wife, I had about a month off… off the road and I was relaxing and stuff and my wife started to notice that I was slurring my words a little bit. She said: “Speak up. I can’t make out what you just said.” And I went – what? And my wife says there’s something wrong. And I said, I’m just relaxing. I’ve been on the road all year. Back and forth, back and forth. Five days up. Five days in. Back and forth like a traveling salesman, you know? Then I’d drop a glass or two and break a plate, which is very uncharacteristic for me, because I’m physically pretty adept if you’ve seen my act. I’m pretty sharp that way. Then when my mother phoned and said, you’d better come up and see about your father because things aren’t good, that was a direct indication it had to be serious. My father had a mild heart attack the year before and they didn’t even phone me. When my younger brothers told me about it, I confronted my parents on the phone and they said (pinched voice): “Well, we didn’t want to bother you.” What is wrong with that generation? (baffled laughter) “We didn’t want to bother you. We knew you were in the clubs doing your act.” And I’m telling them: “It’s not a bother. You’ve got to phone me. I could have booked the gig again. It’s just a gig. My dad had a heart attack! Oh my God, what were you thinking?” “We didn’t want to bother you. It was just a little thing.” “No it was not a little thing!”
So when I was packing to come up here, my wife said: “Promise me when you get to Ottawa that you’ll see a doctor, just in case. I said (uncooperative child’s voice) “Alright.” I’m moving towards that generation where I’m saying (mean widdle kid): “I don’t want to see a doctor, dammit. I don’t want to go see my dentist either. What’s the big deal? Can’t I just relax in my house and slur my words? I’m just slurring my words and dropping things.” (big laughs) So I went to the doctor and they took basic physio (readings) and some tests and they said, well, there’s something a little off about this wet test. They did the Hep C test and they said: “Wow, you’ve got Hep C.” Whoah! What does that mean! (blubbering sounds) All this information went in one ear and out the other. (Jerry Lewis voice) “What do you mean it’s incurable? What do you mean it’s too late for the drug thing and the stomach what? I need a what in two years?”
So then I tried to continue working but there was a period of time I couldn’t work for three months. Then the liver specialist said: “You can’t fly.” I made a couple of visits down to see the wife, but my parents said: “Oh, you should stay in Ottawa, go to the hospital. They’ve got the best liver specialist here, you should go see her.” So it was crazy. And then, when I was on the Blackjack Tour out west with my good friend Matt Billon, another comedian, the two of us, we were playing these little one-nighters… it just happened somewhere. I got this ammonia poisoning or whatever and I ended up with a severe infection where I just went crazy. I don’t even remember half the night but apparently they had to drag me off stage because I was incoherent and I was running around the hotel in my underwear and the ambulance guys had to come and strap me down. Yep. For two days they had to strap me down in my bed because I kept on pulling out the IVs and stuff. They had to flush my body out. I was released three days later with antibiotics and stuff. They had to flush all the liquids from my body. I actually finished the tour for another two weeks. I got home here in Ottawa in April.
Things were fine for the next two weeks. Then all of a sudden this pain started in my stomach and it was another infection somehow and I had to go to the Ottawa Civic Hospital. That’s when they started pulling out almost six gallons of bile. And then they said: “Yeah, your liver shut down. It was overloading your kidneys. They almost shut down. We got there in the nick of time.” Blah-blah-blah. “We’re going to have to fax Toronto and see if we can get a meeting there and you’re going to need a liver!” So that’s when I went on Facebook and said – whoah! Is there a living donor out there maybe? I don’t know how to ask for this. It took me a long time to write that letter. It took something like 10 days. It was like one of the hardest writing jobs I’ve ever had to do. Just strictly on a writing level, because I didn’t know how to ask. I didn’t know what to say. My friends said (cocky): “Ah, just go on Facebook and ask for a liver.” Ah, you can’t just ask like that. I had to tell the whole story of what happened and why. It’s not like (moronic-sounding voice): “Can I borrow a cup of sugar? Can I borrow a portion of your liver?”
I found out later that the liver regenerates itself so the living donor situation… the person donates a certain portion of the liver. The ideal donor is the same size, male, healthy. Maybe 40% of the liver is transplanted and starts to grow in you. The donor’s liver grows back, so that’s the ideal situation if everything goes right. God willing it doesn’t reject itself, and the rejection drugs don’t give you all the side effects that I mentioned before – cancer, heart attack and all that – there are people that have lived… I was talking at a barbecue for the Canadian Liver Foundation for Hepatitis Day and we’re trying to make people aware of getting tested because it’s a very very simple test… to get tested for Hep C. People really should get tested because the earlier you find out that you have the potential or you have Hep C, the better it is because you have a chance of not going through what I’ve gone through. Your disease can be controlled, even eradicated, through drug therapy. I have a friend in Toronto who, in the year 2000, went into an experimental drug program and he’s virtually Hep C-free now. He’s cured. He hasn’t had any problems since 2000. So that’s 12 years without any – any – indications at all of Hep C. He’s fine.
Anyone interested in helping Mike MacDonald should contact email@example.com
This story first appeared in OLM’s web edition in August 2012.