If you spotted Chris Klug on the ski slopes, you would recognize him to be the epitome of fitness. If he pulled up his shirt, you would notice a nasty scar. If you asked him how he got it, he might flash a wry smile and tell you that he survived a shark attack. However, he got that scar at the University of Colorado Hospital where he received a liver transplant. When he received the transplant, he had only months to live. After the transplant, he resumed his snowboarding and won a Bronze Medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Sadly, countering success stories like Chris’ are thousands of tales of the deaths of individuals waiting in vain for a limited number of donated organs.
I spoke with G. David Fleming, President and CEO Donate Life America, the national nonprofit organization that works to provide organ donations. He told me that currently nearly 120,000 men, women, and children are awaiting organ transplants in the United States including 65,991 multicultural patients and 1,760 pediatric patients. In 2012, 14,013 individuals donated organs; thus, the demand far exceeds the supply. Every day 6,500 die people in need of a transplant die. David told me that people need to be aware of, and make arrangements for organ donation, including informing loved ones of their wishes. Thus, if an individual suffers a fatal event, his or her wishes can be honored. Dave told me that 46% of organ donors over the age of 18 register as a donor when they renew their driver license, a simple procedure.
Chris is a superb example of how organ donation can restore health and vitality. In his early 20s, he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitits (PSC), a rare degenerative bile duct condition, and was told he required a transplant. He was in good health at the time and really didn’t accept the grim prognosis. However, as his health began to deteriorate, he became face to face with his mortality. His failing health did not diminish his competitive spirit. He took sixth place in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
He told me that the hardest part of the process was the waiting game leading up to his transplant. It’s not like an orthopedic injury. He said, “Your life is put on hold; you hope and pray daily for a second chance. I wore a pager every minute of the day and carried a cell phone as a backup in anticipation of receiving ‘The call’ from the University Hospital Transplant Team informing me that a liver was available that matched my blood type, age and size. Three months after being upgraded on the list to a more critical stage, I was attempting to work out at the Aspen Club & Spa with my brother Jason, my girlfriend Missy, and my buddy Marco and my phone rang. When I finally got the call I was relieved that the wait was finally over, but scared to death of the prospect of possibly not surviving the surgery. I was extremely fortunate. I received a perfect match and had the best team of doctors around performing the operation. I was pretty fit going into the surgery, which helped me bounce back quickly. I worked hard preparing for the surgery both mentally and physically. I was out of the hospital in record time, four days, and back in the gym lightly riding a stationary bike and lifting my arms within a week. I really had to listen to my body and to my doctors and go easy for the first month. The risk of an insertional hernia was high, so I took it easy. We stayed in Downtown Denver at the Magnolia Hotel for the first month following my transplant in Denver. The doctors told us the best thing I could do was walk, so I that’s what we did. We walked to Broncos Games, Rockies Games, the new Denver Aquarium, and shops all over the city. I even walked a round of golf, following Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia, and Phil Mickelson at the International at Castle Rock. Man, was I spent after that. I remember sitting on the eighteenth green in the shade, after the event for about a half hour catching my breath and trying to muster the energy to make it back to the car.”
He returned to Aspen a month after his transplant to begin his rehab with my trainer Bill Fabrocini at the Aspen Club & Spa Sports Performance Center. He explained, “We eased back into strength work and did regular abdominal massage and soft tissue work. My abs had been sliced through, so it took quite a while for them to come back and it left a “Bad” new tattoo. I was back on my road bike about four and a half weeks post-surgery, riding with my friends Gary and Marco up Ashcroft outside Aspen. I was sucking wind on that first ride. It took a while for my red blood cell count to return from the low twenties at surgery to normal. I wasn’t transporting oxygen like I was used to so my lungs were working overtime at nine thousand feet above Aspen. Seven weeks after my surgery, I began light abdominal strengthening. A week later I headed to Mt. Hood, Oregon for my first runs back on my snowboard. It was pretty special. I remember being so excited to be back on-snow and with my friends again. I never take a day of riding with my buddies or a single turn for granted any longer.”
Four months after his surgery, Chris was back on the World Cup Circuit. Six months later, he stood atop the podium in Olang, Italy for the first time. He said, “That winter was one of my best seasons ever. I attribute that to a new perspective on life and feeling lucky to be doing what I love again after running the ‘Race for my Life.’ A year and a half later I had the opportunity to represent our country in my second Olympic Games where I won a Bronze Medal and fulfilled a life-long dream!”
For more information about the Donate Life America, click on this link.