The Kid Bounces Back

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The thirteen-year-old lingered on life support through the night and into the next day. There was no chance he'd recover. The sole purpose of the machinery that kept his heart and lungs functioning was to prevent his organs from deteriorating.

After the neurosurgeons had declared the boy brain-dead, his mother was approached by a representative of the Denver-based Donor Alliance, a nonprofit agency that coordinates the recovery of organs and helps match organ and tissue donors with recipients. There was something her boy could still do. His heart, his lungs, his kidneys, pancreas and liver could save the lives of others. But only if the mother agreed.

In an imperfect world, she was asked to put aside her grief for a moment and act for the good of strangers. And in that moment, she made a heroic decision. She reached out and gave the only thing her child had left, a gift of life.

A little before 6 a.m. on July 28, Missy and the Klugs gathered in the waiting room on the transplant floor. Chris sat on the couch, absorbed in a surfing magazine. Missy leaned against him. Chris's sister, Hillary, sat nearby. She had recently returned from France, where she had watched Lance Armstrong take a second triumphant Tour de France spin through Paris.

Warren and Kathy, Chris's mother, stood and sat and stood again. False bravado hung in the air. Warren noted that the record number of laps around the transplant floor for a liver-transplant patient in the first 24 hours after surgery was thirteen. Kathy responded with a strained laugh. "Let's not turn this into another sporting event," she said.

Chris didn't even look up from his magazine. He was frightened but trying not to let his family or girlfriend know just how much. Missy shut her eyes. She couldn't imagine life without Chris and was realizing that nothing was guaranteed on this day.

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.

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.

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Steve Jackson