“Byron S. Mackay: Arthritis Can’t Cripple His Spirit,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 51–52
Byron Smith Mackay matter-of-factly recounts his lifelong battle against debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. The disease has left his body badly weakened, but in the spirit Byron seems to be winning.
He was stricken with rheumatic fever when he was only twelve, but its life-threatening effects did not appear until years later.
The years of his youth seemed normal enough. When he was fifteen years old, young Byron began working at the Winder Dairy in the southwest part of Salt Lake Valley, loading cases of milk onto trucks—some twenty-one tons of milk a day, 365 days a year. He married Caryl Nielson, whom he had met in the eighth grade, in the Salt Lake Temple when he was eighteen and she was seventeen. Byron built the house they now live in, and in 1949 their first son, Glen, arrived.
It was the same year the disease struck. His condition became so bad that for a time he was not expected to live; his weight dropped from 175 to 109 pounds. A new job was created for him at the dairy—night watchman—but within two years the swelling in his joints and the pain made it impossible for him to continue working. His eight-year stint at the dairy ended in 1951, a few months after his daughter Peggy was born.
George Winder, Brother Mackay’s boss at the dairy, speaks of him with the affection of a longtime friend. Byron Mackay, he says, has “the most positive attitude of anyone I know. You never hear him complain, although he has much he could complain about. He’s really a great man.”
In January of 1952, six weeks of hospitalization began. Brother Mackay was in excruciating pain. One night Caryl knelt in prayer and pleaded that her husband would be relieved of his suffering or taken from this life. She received a strong witness that he was to live.
The next morning at the hospital she found him free of pain. The evening before, he had received his first dose of a new drug—cortisone.
The respite was brief. Because the drug was still being tested, doctors stopped giving it to him after two weeks. Brother Mackay had been at home, walking again. But soon he needed to return to the hospital. This time, he feared he might die.
Before he went into the hospital, his extended family fasted for him, and he received a blessing under the hands of his cousin. “The Spirit of the Lord was there so strong! As he blessed me, he promised that according to my faithfulness I would be able to perform my responsibilities, and that I would not suffer any more increase of pain from the arthritis. And he promised me that I would be able to raise my family, and provide for them, and work,” Brother Mackay recalls.
Another new drug improved his condition. After training through a rehabilitation program, he was able to work many years as a barber. Eventually, he bought his own shop; paralysis in his hands now makes it nearly impossible for him to work.
Barbering never provided a lot of money, Brother Mackay recalls, but “we had enough for clothes and Christmas.” It also helped support two more children, Dan and Sandra.
There have been numerous hospitalizations through the years: three hip replacements (one wore out), two knee surgeries, surgeries on both hands, back surgery, broken ribs from a fall. Recently his lower eyelid had to be removed because of cancer.
So it was a surprise a few years ago when he was called to be bishop of a new ward. He told the stake presidency, “The Lord will have to help.” Their answer: “He will.”
Pete Thompson, formerly president of the Granger Utah Stake, comments, “Byron was a fantastic bishop. When he called people in for a position, they forgot their excuses and accepted, knowing the bishop wouldn’t be too impressed by any reasons why they couldn’t serve.
“Byron didn’t know what it meant to get discouraged. He kept going—and got others going too.”
The people of his ward knew his love was genuine, and the affection was reciprocated. When the ward had a campout at Yellowstone National Park, they gave him a T-shirt emblazoned “Bionic Bishop.”
But further health problems forced him to ask for a release as bishop late in 1983. Since then he has faced a heart attack, other major surgeries, and six weeks of complete paralysis from which he is recovering. Priesthood blessings have helped. So has his family, particularly a son and daughter-in-law who live nearby.
Brother Mackay promised his stake president that he and his wife would go on a mission as soon as he is able to walk and care for himself. One of the blessings he received told him he still has a special mission to fulfill. Caryl Mackay believes that is why his life has been preserved.
Her husband credits her with most of his success and well-being. He notes that she worked at Winder Dairy for many years; when he was unable to work, she paid tithing on what he would have made if he had.
The Mackays believe that people must prove the Lord, not just for a month or two, but for a long, long time. Byron comments: “I’m a living testimony that if people will accept callings, the Lord will help them fulfill them.”