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Organ transplant recipient Pat Buchta starts donor charity

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com

Last year, Pat Buchta lay in a Dallas hospital bed, his body falling apart.

“For that month, I couldn’t close my eyes,” says the Austinite, 42, whose liver disease was diagnosed definitively in 2001. “If I did, I couldn’t drift off. I couldn’t tell reality from a dream.”

One day, a team of doctors rushed in. They had a liver to transplant.

“I said goodbye to friends and family,” Buchta recalls. “The next thing I know, I wake up and ask my mom to get my little Catholic pack with holy water. They start spraying holy water on me.”

He was not, however, dying.

“I didn’t find out until later that I had had six or seven hours to live,” he says. “They got it just in time.”

Buchta knew he was lucky. Recovering, he heard families down the hall crying. He asked why.

“They are not going to get the chance you had, they told me,” Buchta remembers. “They didn’t find a donor. I got this opportunity, but a lot don’t.”

Now the picture of dashing health, Buchta learned that 18 Americans die every day because they were unable to get organs in time. Only 15 percent of Texans are registered as donors.

Even more astounding, if you signed up to be a donor before 2005, when the data was first computerized, there’s no effective record of your wishes.

So Buchta, promotions and social media producer for KVUE, mustered his marketing skills to start Pat’s Promise (patspromise.org). Since September, potential donors have been able to register through his site or learn more about donor registries.

He’s also hitting the road with the donor message. Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez and Police Chief Art Acevedo, for instance, have signed on to star in public service announcements targeting the Hispanic community.

Born in Waco, Buchta counts among his ancestors Czech, Irish and Creole Texans with vivid histories on the Gulf Coast and the Nueces Strip. He was a creative kid, who loved to draw and play music.

“I was also a very sick kid, in and out of hospitals as a child,” Buchta says. “At first, they thought it leukemia, or a rare blood disease.”

He loved racing around outdoors at his family’s Lake Waco home.

“But my parents treated me differently,” he says. “My mom became very protective. Not sure my dad knew how to deal with it. They were very loving, very caring. My brother and sister might not have gotten as much attention because of that.”

A motivated student with leadership skills at Waco High School, he worked hard to bridge social divisions within the post-integration student body. A lover of old movies, he later studied radio, television and film at Baylor University. After an unpromising start at a Waco TV station, he landed a producing gig for a deep-sea fishing show on Fox Sports Southwest cable network. Things, not for the last time, were looking up.

Camping out in Limestone County with friends in 1995, he woke up coughing up blood.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” he says. “It freaked out my buddies. This was before cell phones. Half way through Mart, I was coughing up more blood. An ambulance took me the rest of the way to the hospital. I lost a third of my blood and was gone for three minutes.”

An angry young man and former Catholic at that point in his life, Buchta woke up Easter Sunday morning realizing there was some benevolent course in the universe.

“Now, I thought, I’m meant for something special,” he says. “All I have to do is sit back and let it happen.”

He got married. Enjoyed his career. Then in 2001, Buchta got sick again.

“I was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis,” he says. “It involves a narrowing of the bile ducts in the liver. The bile backs up and poisons you.”

Worse, some titanium coils installed during the 1995 illness helped kill off his liver.

“This brought my whole world down on me,” Buchta says. “Maybe the stuff I thought about, none of that was true. I lost my faith, lost my way. Even did the one thing I shouldn’t do to hurry things up: I drank for a couple of years. I was in a very dark place.”

He sobered up and endured more health crises before landing on a list for a liver transplant in 2009. He also banished negativity and started a blog about his incipient operation.

“It was way to process,” he says. “I wrote about spirituality, loss, death. I earned followers from around the world. That gave me strength.”

He will was tested again when his father died suddenly from Alzheimer’s disease Christmas 2010.

“There was lot of heavy stuff happening all at once,” he says. “You have to keep a smile on your face, radiate love. You can’t break down and be an (expletive). I wouldn’t do it. If I weakened, the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.”

All of the ups and downs collided during that fateful stay in a Dallas hospital. At first, doctors said he was too sick to receive a liver. Later, he got a second shot, was rolled into an operating room, only to be told the donated liver was possibly cancerous. Finally, the rattled patient, yellow from jaundice and puffed up with 60 pounds of water weight, got the green light.

“My recovery has been miraculous,” he says over burgers at Wholly Cow on Congress Avenue. “I can go to the gym, do yoga once a week. My color turned from yellow to pink within hours.”

Buchta also put together small-scale benefits for his donor registry charity, Pat’s Promise, with a novel twist.

“We don’t want your money,” he likes to say. “We just want your organs.”

Correction: Details of Pat Buchta’s father’s death were updated from a previous post.