The Bounce-Back Kid

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

When Chris announced that he'd be leaving the school to pursue his racing career, the headmaster turned to the Klugs for support. They backed their son. "You're making a serious mistake," the headmaster warned. But the Klugs were already on their way out the door.

Soon afterward, Chris turned professional, winning one of his first races at Hunter Mountain, New York. He thought it was going to be win after win after that, but it took him until 1993 to get back on the podium, placing third in the Super-G at the U.S. Open. He put the rest of the snowboard racing world on notice when he took first in the giant slalom at the International Snowboard Federation (ISF) World Series in Val d'Isere, France.

By the fall of 1994, the only thing slowing him down was the surgery he'd had the year before to remove painful bone spurs from his heels. They were still hurting him, but he was looking forward to the season when he went into the clinic in Aspen for a routine physical. He was thinking about changing his insurance coverage and thought he'd breeze through the qualifying checkup. He was a perfect physical specimen; he could "hammer" -- bike or run as hard as possible -- up Buttermilk Mountain without getting winded. Then he might do it again for kicks.

Brian Stauffer
Chris as a toddler.
Chris as a toddler.

For years, he and some of the other boarders had been talking about their sport needing to clean up its image if they wanted to be taken as seriously as ski racers. It was important for attracting sponsors and getting endorsements. Chris dreamed of the day when snowboard events would become part of the Winter Olympics and he would make that first team representing his country.

So he was surprised when he got a call from the clinician. She said he had abnormally high liver enzymes, which could, she added, mean something serious. That was when she asked if he drank a lot. After all, he was a snowboarder.

Chris asked to have his blood checked by his family doctor. When the enzyme numbers came back high again, the doctor sent him to see Dr. Gerald Tomasso, a specialist in gastroenterology in Glenwood Springs.Warren and Missy went with him.

They all agreed on the way to Glenwood Springs that this liver-enzyme deal couldn't be much of anything. Chris didn't have any symptoms.

Tomasso explained that high liver-enzyme numbers are an indication that the liver isn't functioning properly. If the heart is the body's pumphouse for circulating blood, the liver can be thought of as its filtration system. The organ regulates the body's metabolism, including energy levels and cholesterol. It stores sugar and takes toxic chemicals -- alcohol and drugs among them -- and changes them into non-toxic substances. The liver also produces bile, which is carried by bile ducts that lace throughout the organ into the small intestine, where the fluid is necessary for nutrient and vitamin absorption in digestion.

Heavy drinking, drug abuse and viral infections -- such as bloodborne hepatitis viruses -- can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis or even liver cancer. Cirrhosis is a scarring of the liver in which the architecture of the organ is distorted, eventually to the point where it can no longer perform its function. Without a functioning liver, death is certain.

Tomasso quickly ruled out the usual suspects for liver disease. This was going to take some detective work, he said. In the meantime, Chris should just go on with his life.

They left Tomasso's office confident that they'd been right. There was nothing to worry about. Chris couldn't be sick.

A year later, Chris was still more worried about his chronic heel problems than about anything concerning his liver.

By the end of the previous spring season, his feet had been killing him. He'd won the Canadian Open giant slalom in Silver Star, Canada, but it wasn't fun being in such pain. Doctors said he needed more surgery on one foot. So he'd decided to take the 1995-96 season off and give his foot a chance to "heel" properly, as he punned. He wanted to do it before the stakes became more serious the following year.

The International Olympic Committee had at last announced that two snowboard events -- the half-pipe "trick" riding and a giant slalom race -- would be part of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. If Chris took off a year to rest and rehabilitate his feet, he'd have an entire year to get back in form for the push to make the U.S. team during the 1997-98 season leading up to the Olympics.

He was preparing for surgery when Dr. Tomasso called and asked him to come to Glenwood Springs for a new test. Chris wasn't alarmed: For more than a year, Tomasso had been on a "fishing expedition," poking and prodding, running tests to get at what was causing the continued high enzyme levels. He'd even performed a biopsy, looking for liver cancer. So far, the tests had revealed no cause.

Again, Warren and Missy accompanied Chris to Tomasso's office, where the doctor said he wanted to conduct what was called an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangio-Pancreatography (ERCP). He explained that Chris would be sedated, and then a fiber-optic laparoscope, a sort of tiny camera, would be run down his throat and through his stomach to the small intestines so that Tomasso could look at the bile ducts leading to the liver. Tomasso didn't say what he thought he might find.

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