The Kid Bounces Back

A boy's death gives snowboarder Chris Klug a second chance at life and the Olympics.

Chris Klug stepped out of the elevator onto Floor 7West at University Hospital. This was the transplant floor, the walls near the waiting room adorned with plaques from organ recipients and their families thanking the doctors and nurses for "the gift of life."

The staff greeted him immediately. Everybody seemed to want to help. As Chris was led to his room, one nurse asked how he was feeling. "A little sore...we water-skied our brains out yesterday. I'm excited but nervous," he replied. "I'm excited to get split open like a trout."

Chris's girlfriend, Missy, and his father, Warren, hovered nearby. Warren commented on everyone's efficiency. "Well, we've done 28 of these since last October," the nurse said.

 
Michael Brands
 
Chris Klug gets encouragement from his girlfriend, Missy, as hospital staffers prep him for his transplant.
Warren Klug
Chris Klug gets encouragement from his girlfriend, Missy, as hospital staffers prep him for his transplant.

When first-year resident and Aspen buddy Thos Evans showed up, he told Chris that after his plastic-surgery rotation was over, he would help repair the stomach scars Chris would have. "We'll get you fixed up for those underwear commercials," Evans joked.

Chris's loon laugh rang out. He'd been working extra hard on sit-ups during the two and a half months he'd spent waiting at the top of the transplant list -- to speed up his return to the professional snowboard racing tour and to continue his quest to medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He looked down, mourning, "Goodbye, abs. See ya next year."

Dr. Josh Goldberg arrived. Short and dark-haired with a goatee, the third-year resident already exuded a surgeon's confidence. He was going to be assisting Dr. Igal Kam, the chief of transplant surgery.

"Kam wants to roll," Goldberg announced. The procurement team -- "We don't say 'harvest' anymore" -- was at St. Anthony Central Hospital preparing the donor.

"Do we get our money back if this doesn't work?" Warren Klug quipped.

"Yeah, do I get a $2,000 rebate for my old liver?" Chris added.

Goldberg went right along with the humor. "If you're not happy, return the liver and we'll give you a full refund." Then it was back to business as he explained that the entire procedure would take five to six hours. Using his own body to demonstrate, he described how the incision would be made starting just below the sternum, running straight down, then off at an angle toward his right hip.

"If you added another cut to the left, it would look like a Mercedes symbol," Chris said of his impending scar.

"Or a peace sign," Goldberg offered. He then reviewed the steps of the surgery, rattling off the parts that would be getting sliced: the vena cava, the hepatic artery, the portal vein.

"I don't want to hear any more," Chris said, making a face. "I might leave. Let's just do it."

Goldberg ignored him. The patient needed to be told that there was a possibility of post-surgery pain, infection and bleeding. Complications could lead to another operation. Or death. Such problems were, however, very rare with Kam.

"That's why they're the best liver-transplant team in the country, if not the world," Evans said.

"The world," said Warren, who had been with his son months ago when Kam assured Chris that he didn't lose any in surgery. The Klugs had done their research, too. They asked around about liver-transplant programs elsewhere, and the word came back that there was no better team anywhere.

"That'd be my vote, too," Goldberg acknowledged, "but I haven't worked with them all."

"The infection risk is low, right?" Missy asked.

Goldberg nodded. "The whole trick post-surgery is finding a balance between enough immuno-suppression, to keep his body from rejecting the liver, and too much immuno-suppression, which invites infection."

Chris wanted off the subject and onto one that interested him: his comeback. He noted that pro basketball star Sean Elliot had told him that he'd returned to his sport after a kidney transplant without any setbacks.

"Well, he's the man," Goldberg agreed. "But you've got to take it easy for a while." Everybody in the room who knew Chris laughed at the suggestion.

"Six weeks before you do much activity," Goldberg cautioned.

"Hear that?" Missy asked her boyfriend.

"Enough of negatives," Chris replied, a little testy.

Chris wondered about the donor liver. He wanted to know if it was healthy or if he would be back again in a year or two, having to go through it all again. If another liver could be found in time.

Because there were confidentiality issues, the donor's identity was protected. But according to the hospital grapevine, the donor was a thirteen-year-old boy who'd been shot in the head; otherwise, Chris was assured, he'd been perfectly healthy. The news sobered Chris. "I hate to think that some poor kid died," he said. "His mom and dad are damn generous to do this for me."

Missy and Warren immediately thought of the newspaper article they'd read on their flight to Denver about the teenager killed by a friend. Warren wondered aloud if a thirteen-year-old's liver wasn't too small. But Goldberg assured them that a developing liver would adapt to a new body even better than an organ from an adult.

Goldberg left, then returned a few minutes later. There was a complication that might delay the surgery. Apparently, there was a problem finding a proper recipient for the donor's heart; they thought they had one, but the match was no good. And they couldn't take the liver until they were ready to take the heart.

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