Bernie Mac’s death — All about the illnesses that killed him

Bernie Mac

In the hours before comedy great Bernie Mac passed away, he looked at his wife, nodded at her, and shrugged his shoulders. According to Mac’s sister-in-law Mary Ann Grossett, the shrug signaled that Mac was tired of fighting. “He shrugged his shoulders, and she said that when she knew he was tired,” Mary Ann told People.

“He signaled to her that his body was tired.” Bernie died a few hours later on 9th August 2008, surrounded by family, including his wife of 30 years, Rhonda, and their daughter, Je’Neice. 

Key Takeaways

  • Bernie was expected to survive his pneumonia, but he died after suffering cardiac arrest twice. 
  • Mac had controlled his sarcoidosis, but the medication he took compromised his immune system. 
  • Bernie’s wife struggled to process his death but found solace in running the Bernie Mac Foundation. 

Bernie passed away due to pneumonia worsened by sarcoidosis

Bernie Mac’s health problems started in 2004 while filming Guess Who and Ocean’s Twelve. His health declined in late 2004 due to a bout of pneumonia – Fox halted filming for The Bernie Mac Show for two months to allow Mac to recover. 

Mac was hospitalized on 24th July 2008 at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, suffering from breathing problems and running a fever. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia and placed him on a ventilator. 

“He was critically ill when he was in the hospital,” Mary Ann said. “He was in intensive care the whole time.” Doctors kept him sedated, but he was conscious at times, Mary Ann added. 

Mac was expected to recover, but his health worsened after contracting a second strain of pneumonia. “He struggled for his life,” Grossett added. “He couldn’t breathe.”

A week into Bernie’s hospitalization, he gestured that he could breathe independently and wanted doctors to take the ventilator out. “He motioned that he wanted it out,” Grossett said. 

Rhonda and Je’Niece were at the hospital when Mac fell into cardiac arrest. Doctors managed to resuscitate him once, and after an hour, he suffered another cardiac attack. “One time he came back for about an hour,” she said. “Then he went into cardiac arrest the second time.”

Mary Ann added that Bernie might have survived pneumonia, but sarcoidosis medication had weakened his immune system. She explained:

“He had sarcoidosis, but it was in remission. But because he had it, his immune system was compromised. He had an infection … He was on a new medication that suppresses the immune system, and that’s where the pneumonia came from.”

Tributes poured in after news of Bernie’s death surfaced. “This is a very sad day for many of us who knew and loved Bernie,” Don Cheadle, Bernie’s co-star in Ocean’s, said. “He will be missed, but heaven just got funnier.”

Mac lived with sarcoidosis most of his life but had controlled it with medication

Doctors diagnosed Bernie Mac with sarcoidosis in 1983. Sarcoidosis cuts down a patient’s lung capacity and develops as shortness of breath and dry cough. 

Per Scientific American, the disease disappears in up to 90% of Caucasians. However, the disease progresses more aggressively in African-Americans, ‘causing more symptoms and resulting in more hospital visits and longer courses of treatment.’

Bernie Mac’s sarcoidosis reportedly went into remission in 2005 following his first battle with pneumonia. A specialist talking to Scientific American confirmed that Bernie’s treatment may have weakened his immune system:

“The treatment which he might have been getting might have caused a depression of immunity and may have made him catch these infections that might have caused pneumonia that may have been the cause of his death.”

Om Sharma, a sarcoidosis expert, said that the disease never goes away for some patients, primarily African-American patients, and requires constant medication to manage. He said:

“Their disease remains under control, but it never goes away. When you stop the medicine, it comes back. This happens most often in African-American patients – depending on one’s genes it manifests either in a relatively harmless way or in a progressive, dangerous manner.”

Mac’s wife continued running the Bernie Mac Foundation to raise awareness about sarcoidosis

Rhonda and Bernie Mac started dating during their teens. Mary Ann said that Bernie charmed her with his humor. Grossett said:

“When they started dating, he said, ‘Girl, you better come on board this train, because I’m going to be rich.’ And her response was, ‘Okay,’ and they were married. That’s how he charmed her, with his sense of humor.”

Bernie Mac & wife Rhonda | Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage

Mac was 20, and Rhonda was 19 when the pair got married. “What she will treasure the most is the fact that she was wife for 30 years – and not only was she wife, but she was his best friend,” Mary Ann said. “She’s going to miss him dearly.”

Mary Ann said that Ann took solace in her faith. “They loved each other and respected each other on daily basis,” Grossett said. “She was by his side to the very end.”

In March 2016, Rhonda McCullough talked to Oprah about Bernie’s last moments. In a feature dubbed Where Are They Now, Rhonda said she pleaded with the comedian to stay alive. She said:

“I remember telling him, I said, ‘Please don’t, don’t die. I said, ‘I’m here. I’m waiting for you. I’ll take care of you. Just don’t, don’t die. Don’t die.'”

Rhonda said she lacked purpose after losing the love of her life. “My whole life was him, since I was 16,” she said

At first, McCullough found it challenging to keep the Bernie Mac Foundation running. Mac created the foundation to raise awareness and fund research for sarcoidosis. However, after a few years, she picked up where her husband had left off. 

“What better way to have his legacy live on. The foundation means to me everything that Bernard was and that he wanted, so I just really can’t let it go now.”

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