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.