The Kid Bounces Back

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

No one had managed to get much sleep. After Chris's release from the hospital, they'd gone to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, where Chris, who'd been told he couldn't eat after midnight, stuffed himself with chicken and dumplings. He was still loading up when Thos Evans showed up and advised him to stop eating; a liver transplant was better on an empty stomach, he said.

About midnight, they returned to a downtown hotel. They all said a prayer and hugged each other goodnight before heading off to their rooms.

Chris and Missy stayed up watching television and calling friends until about 2 a.m. They laid in bed and talked about the morning. Chris worried that after he'd gotten to this point, someone could still "come in Status 1 and snake my liver." He said it lightly, but Missy knew that his fear was real.

 
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.

After Chris had been moved to Status 2B in April, he was introduced to the transplant-floor staff and then attended a two-hour class given by transplant coordinator Tracy Steinberg. Steinberg had gone over the myriad things Chris needed to know about, such as the anti-rejection drugs he would need to take for the rest of his life.

She'd also explained how the United Network of Organ Sharing worked, and stressed that nothing was guaranteed. He might get the call saying there was a potential donor and that he needed to report to the hospital. But then, after coming all that way, maybe even going through the pre-operation preparations, the organ might be rejected by the surgeons or assigned to a patient who was more suitable for reasons such as age or size.

Perhaps, as Chris feared, someone might "snake it." As a Status 2B, Chris could be just about on the operating table, then lose the liver at the last minute to someone with a higher status level at another transplant hospital within Region 8, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. The object is to save lives, so UNOS rules require that organs be offered first to patients who have the most serious medical predicaments.

On the other hand, there were occasions when a Status 2A or Status 1 would be too sick for the operation. The anti-rejection drugs worked by suppressing the immune system; if a patient was already battling an infection, suppressing his immune system might kill him before liver failure did.

In spite of his worries, though, Chris was optimistic. He had his comeback all figured out. He'd get through the operation and then out of the hospital in record time; after that, physical therapist Bill Fabrocini would put him through an intense rehab program to get his body back in shape. Chris thought that he could do it and still make the October training camp with the U.S. snowboard team on Mt. Hood in Oregon.

Exhausted, Chris and Missy fell asleep sometime after three, only to be awakened at five to go back to University Hospital. On the ride over, Chris didn't say much. Instead, he just listened to his father talk about his being in God's hands and prayed that it was true.

Back on the transplant floor, Chris was readmitted and ushered to the waiting room. A short time later, nurses arrived with a gurney to transport him down to the pre-op room. His father quickly gathered the family in a circle; they held hands as he prayed, thanking God for "this miracle...while our hearts go out to the family of the young man who died." Then, like a quarterback breaking a huddle, he finished with a rousing "Yea, God! Amen."

Out in the hall, Chris looked uneasily at the gurney. "Can I walk?" he asked.

No, he was told, hospital rules wouldn't allow it. He reluctantly climbed aboard. Missy and his family escorted him down the elevator and into the pre-op room, which was large, dark, and chilly as a morgue. A row of empty beds were lined up against one wall. Across the room, Chris lay on the gurney in a halo cast by the only light in the room.

At 6:10 a.m., anesthesiologist Tom Henthorn arrived. "The liver's here," he said. "It looks good."

Chris perked up. "Really? Is it perfect?" he asked.

Well, Henthorn backtracked a little, the surgical team would have to inspect and approve the organ. Nevertheless, that was the report he'd heard from the recovery team that had procured the organs at St. Anthony.

A short, barrel-chested man with long, wavy silver-gray hair tucked back behind his ears and a thick gold chain around his neck strolled into the room. Even without the green surgical scrubs he wore, there was no mistaking him. Chief of transplant surgery Igal Kam appeared to be in no hurry as he looked about with brown eyes beneath arched brows, a king surveying his subjects. "God has entered the building," a nurse standing next to Kathy Klug said under her breath. Chris was lucky, she added. "He gets the boss."

"There's certainly an air about him," Chris's mom replied as Kam went to speak to her son.

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