Gary Garcia was told he had two weeks to live.
In 2007, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and the resulting antiretroviral medication eventually destroyed his gallbladder – which meant his liver would have to filter all the toxins in his body. It took its toll and interfered with Gary’s sleep. Doctors prescribed yet another medication for sleep, but that was more than his body could take.
Gary woke up one day looking yellow. The doctor told him he was in acute liver failure due to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), a type of fatty liver disease. To survive, he would need a liver transplant in the next two weeks. But it would take six months just to get on the waiting list – and it was difficult to even find a hospital willing to perform a transplant on an HIV patient.
“I wasn’t able to function,” Gary said. “Simple things like walking, eating … I was literally dying.” But, he said, “I was determined to live.”
That two weeks stretched into three years. Gary and his husband, Chad, had to fight to get him care, searching for a medical team that knew how to handle both liver failure and HIV. While in San Diego, Gary was listed on the national transplant list. In 2014, due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to move from San Diego to Texas and found a transplant center that was able to take his case. Gary had to get relisted on the transplant list. In September 2016, he was again added to the national transplant waiting list.
Three times, he was called about a possible match. The first two times were disappointments; the third time was a go. Gary received a new liver on Dec. 6, 2016.
“I was excited, yet felt so much compassion and hurt for the donor family.”
He wrote to the family of his donor weeks after his transplant but hasn’t heard anything back yet. Meanwhile, he lives and gives through speaking engagements educating others about organ donation and HIV. He is an ambassador for the HOPE Act – HIV Organ Policy Equity – which allows HIV-positive people to receive organs from HIV-positive donors. Before the act was unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013, people who were HIV-positive were not able to become organ donors.
“Everyone deserves care, compassion and the best chance at life," Gary said. He plans to start a foundation to provide education and financial support to others going through organ transplantation.
“This has given me a beautiful life,” he said. “My donor decided to be an organ donor, which saved my life, which allows me to pay it forward by keeping their legacy alive.”