Michael Douglas, a new resident of south- ern Maryland, credits genetic testing for helping him find his heritage — and a
family he knew very little about.
Douglas, 43, is adopted. He knew his birth
mother’s name and had seen a birth certificate stating his birth name: Thomas Michael
McCarthy. Over the years, Douglas had tried off
and on to find his birth family, mostly by looking
for his mother’s name, Deborah Ann McCarthy, in
phone books and calling the numbers. “I think I
must have broken up a lot of marriages,” he laughs.
His search gained urgency in the last five
years as he battled a life-threatening illness. “We
planned my funeral three times,” he says. Douglas
has a genetic disease called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, caused by a variant in a gene that helps
build the body’s connective tissue. His stretchy
skin and hyperflexible joints are characteristic of
“As a kid, I was always dislocating something,”
he says. His blood vessels don’t constrict properly
to maintain his blood pressure, so Douglas some-
times faints when he stands up. For five years, he
has had a constant migraine. Headaches are typi-
cal of about a third of people with Ehlers-Danlos.
On top of that, he has B cell lymphoma. “I feel like
I have the flu every day,” he says. It was time, he
decided, to track down his birth family and learn
more about his medical history.
In June 2017, Douglas flew to Ireland on what
he calls his “death trip.” He wanted to see the land
of his McCarthy ancestors. He chose Fethard,
because the walled medieval town has a pub called
McCarthy’s. (Douglas learned later that he and the
pub owner are related.) His health improved during the visit, which he attributes to Ireland’s cool
weather. When he returned to Phoenix, where he
and his adopted family lived, he had new resolve
to find his birth family.
“That’s it,” he decided. “I need my DNA run to
find out who I am.” He sent his DNA to three testing companies: Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA
and MyHeritage. With his results plus sleuthing
When your ancestry
depends on the test you take
By Tina Hesman Saey
DNA testing helped
Michael Douglas find
his biological family in
southern Maryland and
his Irish roots.