When we last left local talk-radio host Chris McCarthy, he had told perhaps the most inspirational COVID-19 story of the pandemic in Greater New Bedford.

Now, much to his dismay, this dauntless trooper is facing the long tail of COVID once again. He’s in another fight for his life, this time over kidney failure caused by his immune system attacking his organs.

It was the courage and candor with which McCarthy made public last June the excruciating details of his 50-day battle with ventilators and hot air forced into lungs, chest fluid drained through crushed ribs, and late-night anxiety attacks, that captured the attention of the region. 

At 49 years old and in the prime of his life, McCarthy was one of the last folks you’d expect to be laid low by the virus. And yet he was.

It’s fair to say that without Chris recounting how he overcame two strokes, a heart attack, double pneumonia, high fever nightmares and more, many of us could not have fully understood the horror that is a near-death experience with COVID.

Talking so candidly about the real COVID was an act of public service by McCarthy and SouthCoast residents should be grateful for his honesty. Two weeks ago, however, Chris unexpectedly found out his kidneys were failing and that he is facing a possible transplant — another residual effect of his long COVID battle.

“I had been through all the COVID stuff, and here I am in organ failure. My kidneys are failing and they’re taking me to a hospital in Salem. Why? Because there’s nowhere else to take me.”

Chris had been doing well all summer, taking walks, going to his physical therapy, even participating in a two-hour radio appearance on WBSM a few weeks ago. His voice, an important part of the game for a radio host, was almost back to where it was before he got sick.

But a few weeks ago, out of the blue, he ended up at the St. Luke’s ER again after he vomited one evening. 

He was just a little worried about aspirating food causing another bout of double pneumonia, so he called the EMTs and they took him in. It turned out he didn’t have pneumonia but doctors noticed something about his heart, and a blood test revealed he was in kidney failure. 

As reported last week, with St. Luke’s Hospital experiencing challenges around staffing its Intensive Care Unit, the nearest ICU bed they could find was at Northshore Medical Center in Salem. They packed him up in an ambulance at 1 a.m., and he was on his way.

“It was pretty eerie going through the city of Boston at 2 o’clock in the morning in the back of an ambulance alone,” he remembered. “You’re thinking about everything, right? I had been through all the COVID stuff, and here I am in organ failure. My kidneys are failing and they’re taking me to a hospital in Salem. Why? Because there’s nowhere else to take me.”

COVID-19 patients at St. Luke’s, Sept. 1-17, 2021

Northshore Medical is part of the Mass. General network and they determined that Chris’ kidneys were indeed failing and failing rapidly. They didn’t know why and had to find out.

To keep his body going, they put a temporary port in his neck and started dialysis. Next they did a kidney biopsy, which showed his immune system was attacking his organs, a sort of over-reaction sometimes seen in post-COVID patients. 

“I’ll use the word the doctor used,” McCarthy recounted. “I have a wildfire going through my kidneys. They don’t know exactly when it started ... my immune system is attacking my kidneys, and it’s doing a helluva job.”

In the wake of the rapid decline of his organs, doctors performed a third surgery on Chris, this time installing a permanent port because he was going to be on dialysis for a while.

Next they transferred him to Mass. General, trying to determine whether they could save his kidneys from this antibody storm or whether he’d need the transplant. To do that, last week they started him on another treatment, the replacement of his blood plasma with new plasma. Nine pounds of it.

“They try to clear out the antibodies that are attacking my organs, to stop any more damage and possibly save my kidneys. If not, they’ll go the transplant route,” Chris said in the same matter-of-fact way he has talked about his COVID treatments from the beginning.

Through it all a jokester, McCarthy has not lost his blarney, pointing out that they let him choose his music (old Bruce Springsteen) when he had the first dialysis port installed, then babbled about having to have the biopsy procedure without any rock music.

“It wasn’t that painful. It really wasn’t painful at all. No music for that one, though,” he laughed.

As frightening as his situation seems, McCarthy reveals nothing but gratitude when he talks about it, praising the medical teams at both Salem and Mass. General.

“This team is unbelievable up here at Mass. General,” he said. “As bad as it may seem, I’m blessed, I’m so lucky to be where I am. Really. It’s unbelievable … it really is. I’ve had a good life so far and I’m hoping to continue to have a good life.”

They brought McCarthy to Mass. General because it’s a leader in kidney disease treatment. And they’re also watching his lungs because when the immune system overwhelms in the wake of COVID, it also goes to the lungs.

“So far, so good,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘Look, they’re seeing a lot of this type of stuff. Other organ failure. Other things that have gone wrong in the body.’”

McCarthy is aware of the role he has played as a radio host making his COVID battle public. Several conservative talk jocks across the country have died from COVID after refusing the vaccine. And though McCarthy has always supported vaccinations, he said he was abused on social media when he first told his tale publicly.

He did not flinch when asked the politically hot question of whether right-wing radio personalities and other conservative leaders have been irresponsible in describing getting vaccinated against COVID as “a personal decision.”

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The overwhelming consensus in the medical and scientific community has been that the country needs to be at 70% or 80% of the general population vaccinated in order to stop COVID from continuing to spread — and possibly mutating into variants that could at some point break through the vaccinations.

McCarthy’s position treads a fine line. He is pro-vaccine but defends the right of individuals to reject the vaccine for “personal reasons,” even though he says they are “idiots” if they do.

He said he had been the first local media person to announce that a regional mass vaccination center would open at Circuit City in Dartmouth. State Sen. Mark Montigny, a personal friend, had come on his program, he said. (Montigny, as a member of the state Legislature, has access to decisions earlier than they are made public by the state government and often announces them on his own in local media.)

Since the beginning of the pandemic, McCarthy has been a supporter of vaccinations, as have several of the hosts at ‘BSM. He came down with COVID in mid-March before he would have been able to be vaccinated, at the time being only 49 years old and with no known comorbidities.

Many of the hosts at ‘BSM, McCarthy among them, have stressed over and again the “personal decision” argument, a message often emphasized by many Republicans and libertarians. 

“I guess when I say it’s a personal decision, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable thing, that I assume everyone wants to get the vaccine,” he said. “The people that don’t want to get it are so ridiculous to me that I don’t even spend any time on it.”

To be clear, by telling his personal story the way he has, McCarthy has done much to make clear the consequences of not getting the COVID vaccine.

“I’ve always been pro-vaccine, but what am I going to do? Demand they get it?” he asked.

Talking to Chris, it’s clear he’s struggling with the issue. He is a man who believes deeply in a small government that is minimally involved in people’s lives. He’s trying to balance that philosophy with his concurrent belief in the long-established science of immunization, and an American government role in ordering vaccinations that goes back as far as George Washington and the smallpox inoculation of the Continental Army.

“I try to listen to the people who are resisting. Because I want to get the logic. And you can’t even follow it. You can’t even follow it,” McCarthy said. “And believe me, I am against government coercion. You know that.”

He makes the conservative argument that a government mandate makes people less likely to comply. “That again is probably why I hedge it when I say it’s a personal decision,” he said.

“Because if you tell many people to go do it, I think they’re more resistant to do it, quite frankly. I think coercion is probably the least effective word, way to go.”

The evidence, however, indicates that Chris is wrong about government coercion when it comes to a public safety matter like vaccines, which of course used to be a non-controversial practice as people sent their children to school for the first time. The New York Times this week reported that after President Biden issued his order that all employers of more than 100 people must be vaccinated, the numbers went up sharply. The major health systems are saying that the vaccine mandate has helped boost vaccination rates to 90% or higher among employers. Southcoast Health is among those organizations that have seen some success in raising employee vaccination numbers by adopting the mandate.

McCarthy says he has no problem with a private business, like Southcoast Health, requiring its employees to be vaccinated. And he leaves a little room for the president of the United States to require vaccinations.

“That may be the president’s call; it’s not mine,” he said.

I’ve known Chris McCarthy since I first arrived in New Bedford 22 years ago. Like polar opposites, we’ve debated these types of issues for many years and enjoyed doing it. After I’ve pounded him on the “personal decision” issue for 10 minutes, I laugh and say I think we’ve about done this to death.

His voice has been rising through the conversation and he gives it back to me from his hospital room. “I’m drawing a crowd in the hallway,” he says.

I tell Chris again how much I admire how he’s handled his ordeal from the beginning but he’s having none of any direct gesture of appreciation.

“Let’s be honest. I’ve had a good life, and I’m going to have a good life,” he says.

“I’ve had every opportunity in the world. And right now, I’m in Mass. General Hospital and I have a group of people around me trying to do everything they can. How could I ever be anything but thankful? Really. How could I be anything but thankful?”

Then he puts it into perspective the way people do when they have great personal challenges.

“Think about the fact that (New Bedford Police sergeant) Mike Cassidy died. Think about the late Fred Kalisz. Think about all the people that I don’t know who died. Think about kids with cancer right now. Think about all the people who have bad things that happen to them who don’t have the opportunities. I have an incredible opportunity,” he says of his treatment and the possibility for a transplant.

“Look, God has been good to me, God has been good to me. God will continue to be good to me. Everyone suffers. Everyone suffers. That’s the way it goes. C’mon, everyone suffers. But my suffering is very, very small.

He describes getting The Boston Globe delivered to his hospital room and breakfast in bed every morning. He says it’s “great.”

“What am I going to do? Complain about it? No. I’ve got to rally myself, I got to rally my family, my friends. That’s my only option.”

Then this irrepressible man with the trial of his life before him gets to the heart of the way he sees things, and what makes him tick.

“You only get one chance in life to be a man,” he says. “You only get one chance in life to be a man. You either do it or you don’t.”

Then he quickly changes the subject and tells me what he really wants to talk about is the New Bedford municipal election and the poor turnout last week. He has all kinds of things to say, he says, including about how much he admires Mayor Jon Mitchell’s announcement that he will welcome Afghani refugees to New Bedford. He talks about Jack Kennedy helping bring in the Portuguese refugees from the Azores after the 1957 volcano.

Talking politics is the thing that’s going to keep him alive, he says.

“This is killing me. I want to be on the radio talking about the election. This is the last thing I want to be talking about.”

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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