By Evan Despian, 15
James Monroe High
It started on a football field. My dad, Gerardo Despian (pictured left), and Dr. Brian Buckley (right), met one very hot August day when I was in 3rd grade. I had gotten to be best buddies with Dr. Buckley’s son, Brendan, at Montessori School, and we were playing football.
I had gotten a little dehydrated and almost passed out. Fortunately, Dr. Buckley was in the stands, and when he saw what was happening, he ran onto the field and checked on me. Our families have been connected ever since.
In addition to being a good doctor, Dr. Buckley was also my baseball coach. He had been a pitcher in college at the University of California and later played for the California Angels in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, he threw out his arm early in his Major League career, but I was pretty excited that a real professional was going to teach me the game of baseball.
So the entire family was really sad when the Buckleys moved to North Carolina just before Brendan and I started 6th grade.
Not long after, Dr. Buckley became extremely sick. We think it was because he drank a bottle of bad water that had been sitting for several days in a cooler on his porch. He stayed sick for a really long time. Over several months, I could hear my parents talking about how sick he was, and I knew that no one was really sure what the problem was. Everyone thought it may have been just a virus and nothing very serious, but we were all wrong.
In the summer of 2009 he was admitted to the hospital and we found out that he had a liver disease and needed a liver transplant. Soon after, the Buckleys moved to Maryland to be close to Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
Then the waiting began. Dr. Buckley was getting worse all the time, and we all knew it. He started dropping a lot of weight, muscle mass, and he was losing energy every day. Just walking the dog was exhausting for him.
After moving to Maryland, they discovered that Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., had a better Hepatology unit, so they switched hospitals. Georgetown (coincidentally, where Dr. Buckley graduated medical school) put him on a list for a cadaver donor. It seems so weird to me that they were waiting for someone to die so that Dr. Buckley could live.
Then, after a few months, the doctors at Georgetown felt he was too sick to wait for a cadaver donor. They told him that the only way that he could possibly survive was to find a living donor.
A living donor is someone willing to give half of his or her own liver to save the life of someone in need. Finding a living donor for these types of procedures is very difficult, not only because the donor has to match the patient in almost every category — blood type, liver size, body type, and overall health — but because they must also be willing to put their own life on the line.
Most people don’t know this, but after the donor has part of his or her liver removed (generally about half to three quarters) to give to someone else, both the donor’s and the recipient’s liver actually grows to full size after six months or so. It is the only organ in our bodies that can regenerate itself. Live-donor transplants are still relatively new in the United States, having only been performed for the last 10 years.
In most cases with live donors, an immediate relative donates the liver. Relatives tend to match well in all the areas, and of course are generally more willing to help a family member. But after everyone in Dr. Buckley’s family was screened, there were no matches.
That’s when my dad got on the schedule to be tested. My mom and dad talked a lot about what being a donor would mean, and the serious and possible risks of the surgery and recovery. But my dad is a man of action.
He went down to Texas to help people for six weeks as a volunteer after Hurricane Katrina. He was the only person who could speak Spanish in his FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) unit, so people lined up to talk to him and get help with their problems. He still says it was one of the hardest and yet best things he has ever done.
My dad spent two full days being tested at Georgetown, and a few days later we heard that it was looking like my dad was going to be a good match. We all began to feel hopeful for a solution.
Then we got a big blow. The doctors decided that it was too dangerous for them to do the surgery because my dad had an extra vein across his liver that they didn’t know how to handle. Our whole family was shocked. When my mom told Dr. Buckley’s wife, Shirley, she burst into tears.
“We will find someone, Shirley,” my mom reassured her. But I think Miss Shirley was beginning to feeling doubtful. My mom kept sending people to Georgetown — some friends and people who had read an article in the local paper — but Georgetown didn’t come up with any donor candidates, and the people my parents and the Buckleys referred to them were again and again not a fit. They asked us to stop sending so many people, which we did not understand.
Dr. Buckley was growing sicker and sicker, and it was coming down to only months left in his life before his liver would give out. Probably by Christmas of 2009, without a miracle, he would be dead.
Meanwhile my mom and dad and their friends stayed busy focusing on other ways to help the Buckleys, who were now without healthcare coverage. They organized a fundraiser / auction / concert to help pay for the Buckley’s medical bills and for the surgery. After a very successful community fundraiser, our family and friends raised more than $25,000, which helped pay their medical bills. But Dr. Buckley still had no donor.
That’s when the doctors at the Medical College of Virginia came to the rescue. It was nearly a year after Dr. Buckley was diagnosed when Miss Shirley called my mom to say she had heard that Medical College of Virginia in Richmond was doing successful living-donor transplants, more even than Georgetown.
My dad applied again to be a donor, and the doctors there were impressed with what they saw. The surgeon, Dr. Fisher, knew exactly what to do with the extra vein and how to handle the surgery. We took a trip to the beach to celebrate our good luck, and my dad’s good health.
Before we knew it, the surgery date of October 12, 2009, arrived. I had just started high school and was busy with schoolwork and new friends. I was excited and scared at the same time. We felt optimistic that Dr. Buckley would be saved, but the surgery was only 80 percent safe, meaning that there was a 20 percent chance that things could go wrong during the surgery.
Those numbers seemed so different when they were talking about my dad — 20 percent chance of a problem, I kept thinking. It was a family decision, and my mom and dad included my brother, sister, and I, but in the end it was Dr. Buckley’s life at stake.
I was determined to be there. Brendan, his brother Jason, and I went down to Richmond on Monday morning to wait with the Buckleys for the surgery to be over. We also hoped to see our dads.
They took my dad down to the operating room at 5:00 a.m., and late in the morning they brought Dr. Buckley to the operating room next door to my dad’s to get him ready. At just the right moment, they would take out half of my dad’s liver and surgically implant it in Dr. Buckley.
The concept was so foreign to me. It was a really, really long day and my mom was extremely anxious and on edge. I also felt scared at times — like when the nurse reported that after five hours the doctors had only severed half of my father’s liver, and that it would be several hours before they cut through the entire liver.
Hearing this made it so real, and I began to understand what my dad was doing and how brave and scary it must have been for him — especially right before he went into surgery.
The surgery lasted for more than 14 hours, with the transplant coordinator giving us updates throughout the very long day, and my mom getting more and more stressed with every hour that passed.
Finally, around 8:00 p.m., Dr. Fisher came to talk to us. We all got extremely quiet. The surgery had been a success and everything had gone perfectly and according to schedule, he said. Both men were doing well.
We all shouted and hugged and high-fived. My dad was still very sedated, the doctor told us, and he had experienced a small heart episode during the surgery, but it was under control now.
When my mom and I got to the post-operative room, he was hooked up to every kind of monitor, tube, and drain you can imagine. It was actually pretty scary to see him look like that.
My dad is a big guy, and always on the go, and now he could not move and could barely talk.
Before I left I hugged him and he said in a kind of whisper — “Basketball tryouts tomorrow?” I nodded and smiled. My mom was teary, but I could tell she was relieved to finally see him after this long day.
My dad spent a week in the hospital and was home recovering for eight weeks. He had a huge incision that went from one side of his stomach to the other. My mom had to change his bandages and his incision drain and give him shots twice a day so that he wouldn’t get a blood clot.
Dr. Buckley slowly but steadily improved. It was several weeks before he came home from the hospital, because it turns out he was much sicker than he ever let on. His liver had shriveled up to a quarter of its original size, and he had been barely alive for months. He had lost more than 80 pounds and most of the muscle in his body. The doctors were in awe of how he had managed to function for so long, being so sick.
It has been a year since the surgery. During his last doctor visit, the doctors said Dr. Buckley’s liver has completely regenerated. He has also gained back the weight he lost and is practicing medicine again.
My dad is doing great, too. He is working out again and is in good health. In September, Dr. Buckley took my dad on a celebration trip to Spain (my father’s homeland). My father often jokes that Dr. Buckley is now officially Spanish — so it was only fitting that he get to meet the family.
I think back to the first time I saw Brendan walk into my 3rd grade class, and I thought we might be friends. Little did I know the amazing friendship that our families would share forever.
About Evan Despian
Evan Despian, 15, is a sophomore at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, VA, where he plays basketball and is a pitcher and shortstop on the Varsity baseball team. A drummer and guitar player, he also loves to spend time with his family, especially his cousins in Charlottesville, VA. He is a huge fan of Virginia Tech sports and an avid Redskins fan.
For more, read this article about the events as they unfolded by WUSA News Channel 9.