Last autumn, on Minnesota’s warm and windy pheasant opener, a rooster flushed from a grassy hillside near a picked bean field. In that split-second, and acting on instinct honed over many years of upland hunting, Chris Buckingham swung on the bird, slapped the trigger and watched the rooster tumble to the ground.

Seconds later, his young springer spaniel retrieved the bird to hand.

“I sat on the hillside and savored the moment a little bit,” said Buckingham, 54, of Glenwood in west-central Minnesota. “I had to get out there to prove to myself I could do it again. My doctors advised me to take it easy, but I’m a little bullheaded. I thought it was time. I felt good enough to go.”

But this was no ordinary pheasant opener. Buckingham was hunting for the first time with a new organ. A year ago this month, and with his life in danger, Buckingham had a liver transplant, courtesy of his “living donor” and wife, Diane. Today, despite a few setbacks typical of organ transplants, Buckingham said he feels deep gratitude for his new lease on life.

“I’m thankful to be able to get outdoors and do the things I love to do with my family,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever hunt again. Truth is, right before my transplant, I didn’t even care … because I was so sick.”

Like many Minnesota kids, Buckingham grew up hunting with his father. Over the years he developed a particular fondness for upland hunting, which he passed on to his sons, Dylan, 22, and Brett, 18. “I love walking and I love watching the dog work,” he said. “Pheasant hunting is my passion.”

Over the past decade, however, Buckingham’s health started to deteriorate as his liver enzyme levels rose — a mysterious condition, he said, that likely dates to his early teens. Still, he continued to go on hunting trips. “I felt like I was walking around with the flu all the time,” he said, recounting his last decade before his transplant. “When I’d go on a trip, I was the first one to bed and the last one to get up.”

Last February, Buckingham started to bleed internally and was airlifted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. A stent was eventually inserted through his liver — a temporary fix for a chronic problem. Buckingham needed a new liver and was put on a transplant list. But he’d likely have to wait two to three years. Ironically, the stent surgery improved his condition but moved him down on the donor list. “The sicker you are, the higher you’re put on the list,” he said.

But Buckingham was an ideal candidate as a living liver donor. After 23 tests over three days, Diane was the perfect match.

“It’s extremely rare that I was a match,” said Diane. “Typically, it’s family members like your kids. Our son, Dylan, volunteered to be tested. I’m grateful we didn’t have go that route.”

The Buckingham’s dual surgeries took place May 11 last year. Chris’ liver was removed while surgeons took 66 percent of Diane’s, after which it was transplanted into Chris. The liver has the greatest regenerative capacity of any bodily organ.

“Our livers were actually fully grown again in about eight weeks,” said Diane. “I felt 100 percent by last summer.”

Chris said he started to feel better “within days” of the transplant. Over the summer, his condition improved even more. Then he started thinking about autumn and the possibility of hunting again.

“The big thing the doctors tell you is that you can’t live in fear, that you have to go live your life,” he said.

Last autumn, Buckingham began living his outdoors life anew. Not only did he hunt the Minnesota pheasant opener, he made two trips to South Dakota, where son Dylan lives and is studying to be an RN. In November, he and Dylan went to Saskatchewan to hunt waterfowl — Chris’ first such trip. In January, Chris and his wife spent a week at one of their favorite places in Mexico.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year since the transplant,” said Chris. “I feel good and it’s like I’m living a new life. I have to take anti-rejection drugs twice a day, and when I’m on a trip I carry antibiotics in case I spike a fever. But that’s a small price to pay.”

Said Dylan of his father’s post-transplant condition: “It’s night-and-day and really gratifying to see him with energy again. He wasn’t a very happy person before his transplant. He just wasn’t in a good mood because he was so sick. It was really hard to see him that way.”

Chris said he has checkup appointments every three months at the Mayo Clinic and has no reason to believe he won’t live a long, active life.

“When I was recovering, I always thought of the sunrise, whether it was off the coast of my favorite little island in Mexico or coming up over a decoy spread in the fields of Saskatchewan,” said Buckingham. “That image to this day picks up my spirits. It’s a new day, with new hope, and another chance to get out and live.”

 

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.