The Bounce-Back Kid

Professional snowboarder Chris Klug carves his way back to the top of the mountain.

Eighteen years earlier, Kathy Klug had stood beside Chris's hospital bed as the ten-year-old struggled to fill his lungs with air. She was holding his hand as he slept, his fingers curled around hers as they had when he was an infant. She inhaled deeply and exhaled, willing him to follow her example. Breathe in, she thought, breathe out. She would have stood there breathing for him all night.

Warren Klug had met Kathy in 1967 while they were college students in suburban Chicago. In the spring of 1968, Warren moved to Colorado to attend the University of Denver's hotel and restaurant management program, and he asked Kathy to come and live with him. She insisted on marriage first -- and won.

Chris with brother Jim, sister Hillary and parents Kathy and Warren (from left).
Chris with brother Jim, sister Hillary and parents Kathy and Warren (from left).
Working form: Chris won the 1997 U.S. Open giant slalom competition.
Working form: Chris won the 1997 U.S. Open giant slalom competition.

Things were tough financially: Warren worked long hours, waiting tables in Denver to pay his tuition and help support them while Kathy worked part-time and attended school. Money became even tighter when she got pregnant and quit work. They'd agreed that she would stay home while their children were young, determined to do whatever it took -- sacrifice careers, do without -- to be there for their kids. They had no medical insurance, but the members of their church, St. Mark's Episcopal, covered the costs when their first child, Jim, was born in 1969. St. Mark's pastor told the grateful couple that they could repay the debt when they were called upon to help someone else in need. They would know when the time came, he said.

The little family moved up to Vail, where Warren managed a ski lodge. In 1972, Kathy was pregnant again. The local clinic didn't deliver babies, so she went to Denver's Rose Medical Center to deliver. Doctors there thought that the baby was overdue, and they induced labor on November 18. But they were wrong: Christopher Jefferies Klug was born premature.

The infant was whisked off to intensive care, and nobody told Kathy that anything was really wrong until the next morning, when a young neonatologist entered the room as she was writing birth announcements. "I'd hold off on that," he said. He explained that the lining of Chris's lungs was not fully developed and, as a result, the preemie had pneumonia and was in serious trouble. But not everyone had such a poor bedside manner. Kathy was crying in the nursery when a nurse walked over to where Chris lay in an incubator. The nurse passed her hands over his body and said, "This baby has a strong aura."

"Is that good?" Kathy asked.

"Oh, yeah," the nurse replied. "He's going to make it."

To improve Chris's chances of survival, the doctors sent him to Children's Hospital. Despite his struggles, he'd let his parents know he wasn't going anywhere. When they put their hands into the rubber gloves attached to the inside of the incubator so that he could hold their fingers, his grip was strong. Three weeks after he was born, he was able to go home.

Still, Chris's early health problems had left him with severe asthma, and he frequently was taken to the emergency room, where he was kept until his breathing stabilized. It wasn't just the asthma that was frightening; sometimes the cure looked worse. Pediatrician Peter Boehm occasionally had to give shots directly to the boy's heart to relieve the constriction. The first time he saw the needle and was told what had to happen, Chris cried. But the relief was so instantaneous that during later attacks, he looked forward to the needle.

The worst attack yet sent Chris to the hospital on his tenth birthday, when doctors couldn't get his blood to oxygenate. With their son's life hanging in the balance, Warren and Kathy split shifts so that one parent would always be with Chris and the other could be back home with Jim and Hillary, who'd been born just a month before.

One evening, as Chris slept, Warren looked at his son lying in bed, fighting for his life, and wondered, How could this be what God has in mind for this wonderful kid?

Whatever divine plan there was, Chris's destiny wasn't to die in that hospital bed.

Boehm and his partner finally got a handle on the problem, but only by installing an arterial line in Chris's wrist to pump oxygen directly into his bloodstream. It was a painful procedure, but Chris was able to go home a week later. He gave Boehm a poem thanking him for "taking away the fear."

Chris's parents believed that the best way to teach their children was by example, so they were active in their church and in the community. The Klugs also expected their children to set goals and aim high. When confronted with difficulties, the kids were to ask themselves, "What are my choices?" -- and then accept responsibility for their decisions. They were to see themselves as participants, not bystanders, in their own destinies. The kids were expected to work hard in school, respect others and be home when told.

Chris didn't let his rough beginning slow him down. He and his brother launched themselves into every sports and outdoor activity. They certainly grew up in the right places for it: first Vail, and then Bend, Oregon, where the family had moved in 1976, when Jim was seven and Chris was four.

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