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The perfect match

Starbuck man enjoying a new life after receiving new liver from his wife

Diane and Chris Buckingham of Starbuck are feeling very fortunate these days. Chris had a failing liver and was in desperate need of a liver transplant. As luck would have it, a perfect donor was living in the same house… his wife, Diane.

Chris was 15 years old when he took his first trip to the Mayo Clinic. It puzzled the doctors then and puzzles the doctors to this day why his liver failed. One option was an injury at a young age. He has been monitored over the years. Doctors thought someday he may need a liver transplant, but never imagined that a transplant would be needed so quickly.

Chris and Diane Buckingham, on May 13, 2015, two days after successful liver transplant surgery. Diane was a perfect match to donate to her husband. Contributed photo

Chris and Diane Buckingham, on May 13, 2015, two days after successful liver transplant surgery. Diane was a perfect match to donate to her husband. Contributed photo

In February 2015, things sure changed in the Buckinghams’ lives. One afternoon, Chris started to bleed internally and needed to be transported by ambulance to St. Cloud Hospital. He was told he would need a stent placed through his liver. Because of the difficulty in this procedure, he was told he needed to be airlifted to the Mayo Clinic. Within 10-15 minutes, Chris and Diane were in a helicopter getting ready to take off. Diane said it was very hard leaving their two sons behind on the helipad.

Once arriving at the Methodist Hospital (Mayo) in Rochester, the team of physicians and nurses went to work. They surrounded him and began working while Diane waited nervously in the waiting room. They worked into the night and were able to stop the bleeding and stabilize Chris, who eventually had the surgery to place a stent through his liver. It was successful but it was a temporary fix. The surgery was designed to buy time and keep him going until a permanent solution could be found.

After spending a week in the hospital, Chris was released for home, returning in three weeks for a follow-up appointment. At this time Chris went through three days of extensive testing and was evaluated to see if he was healthy enough for a liver transplant.

“We met with his doctor and he informed us that Chris was definitely in need of a new liver and he would be placed on the transplant list,” said Diane. To be placed on a transplant list, patients are given a MELD (Model for End-Stage Liver Disease) score. Chris had a MELD of 20. When he arrived at the Mayo Clinic three weeks earlier he had a MELD of 30 which means he had moved closer to the top of the list for receiving a liver. Because of the surgical placement of the stent, his MELD had dropped to a 20. He was sick enough to be placed on the transplant list.

Then the bad news — he may have a wait 2-3 years. Each year, 16,000 people are on a list waiting for a liver and only about 6,000 receive one (According to American Liver Foundation). Chris would have to become “sicker” to move up higher on the list.

“This news was extremely hard for all to take as we did not want to watch his health decline any more,” Diane said.

The doctor also had some good news. It was determined that Chris was a perfect candidate for a living liver donor.

After hearing the word “living donor” Diane’s ears perked up. She said she immediately asked to be tested to be his donor. To be a living donor you must first match blood type. Because Diane is O positive, she is a universal donor, so she had just passed the first hurdle. Other factors that are considered are similar body size, liver anatomy and overall health of the donor. Diane was scheduled for a three-day evaluation and after 23 different tests it was determined that Diane was a perfect match for Chris.

“It was extremely rare that I was his match,” Diane said. Normally family members such as siblings or children are better candidates. The Buckinghams’ son, Dylan, also volunteered to be tested but his parents said they are relieved he did not have to.

“I was very apprehensive when I found out that Diane was a match,” said Chris. “I didn’t want to jeopardize Diane’s health and risk my sons possibly losing both parents, no matter how long the odds were.”

On April 28, 2015, Diane was officially approved to be a living donor. Surgery was scheduled for May 11, giving them a short window to get things in order at home and at work.

On surgery day, Dylan and Brett waited with their aunt and uncle. The later told their parents it was the longest day of their lives. They were given updates throughout the day and were told late that afternoon that both surgeries were a success.

In surgery, doctors removed 66 percent of Diane’s liver and placed it inside Chris, after his entire liver was removed. The liver is the only organ that regenerates and grows back. After spending a week in the hospital, both of their livers had already grown to 90 percent. Then the process traditionally slows down and finishes in the next 28 to 45 days.

Dylan was able to stay and be his parents’ caregiver while they were in the hospital. He has now enrolled in a RN nursing program, a decision which may have been influenced by the experience he went through as a caregiver.

The Buckinghams were required to stay in Rochester for the next three weeks after getting out of the hospital. Their brother-in-law, Steve, was their caregiver, staying with them as Chris had appointments several times a day. Chris and Diane said the hard part was being away from their boys and sending them home. Brett needed to finish up his junior year of high school and continue with his golf season. Dylan also needed to start his summer job. Chris’s sister, Gwen, moved in and took care of the everyday things at home while Chris and Diane were away.

After a month, Diane and Chris were released just in time to watch Brett compete in the State High School Golf Tournament. Even though Chris still had two drains in place, as well as a PIC line for IV antibiotic, they were able to attend the golf meet. They were thankful for the opportunity to see him play.

“Our livers were actually fully grown at about six to eight weeks, which was early last summer,” said Diane. They both continued to heal, driving back and forth to Rochester for follow-up appointments throughout the summer.

Ten month later, the Buckinghams are nearly back to normal.

“I feel better today than I have for the past 10 years,” said Chris.

Chris continues to have appointments every three months at the Mayo Clinic. They are monitoring him closely with labs and then are able to make changes as needed. He is looking forward to improving enough to just have a yearly check up.

As for Diane, she feels 100 percent.

The Buckinghams would like to thank their family, friends, church and the entire Minnewaska community for their support. “We are so fortunate to have the Starbuck Clinic and also the Glacial Ridge Hospital nearby

“We are truly thankful to live in a small community,” Diane said. “It has been an amazing journey.”

During the difficult days of surgery and recovery, the Buckinghams wanted to have something to look forward to. So as soon as they were given the OK to travel, they planned a trip.

“We planned a trip for our family to our favorite spot in Mexico,” said Diane. “We wanted to celebrate our transplant with just our family. As it turned out, our oldest, Dylan, was unable to attend as he was accepted and is currently enrolled in a nursing program and could not miss his classes.”

Even though they missed Dylan, they had a great trip. And they are enjoying life again.

“It is nice to kind of get back to a somewhat normal way of life,” said Diane. “I really want to stress to people to become organ donors. After going through what our family experienced, you realize what a difference it makes in people’s lives.”

On April 1, Chris and Diane will celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary.

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