The Kid Bounces Back

Page 5 of 18

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.

Rather than being off-putting, the imperious bearing of the surgeon was reassuring to Kathy. Since the transplant program's reincarnation at University Hospital in 1988, more than 500 livers had been transplanted, and, Kam noted, he'd done "most of them." Now he was going to get her boy to the other side.

Kam announced that he had done a visual inspection of the donor liver, and the team was ready to proceed. Chris was getting sleepy, but he wanted more reassurances. "Does it look perfect?" he asked again. But Kam would say only that it looked fine, and then he was gone to scrub up for the operation.

More nurses arrived to wheel Chris off to the operating room. Up to this point, he'd appeared nonchalant. Now he struggled not to cry as he looked up at his mother. "Am I ready for this?" he asked her.

Kathy Klug smiled at her son. She thought about all the times she had looked down on him lying in a hospital bed. Her infant with his pneumonia. The ten-year-old with asthma whom she'd willed to breathe in, breathe out. The young man who was told he might never walk normally again. What do you love, Chris? I love the starting gate, Mom. I love the possibilities. She thought about the people who'd gotten him through the bad times: his family, who made sure he knew he was loved, and the doctors who had cared for him and, as he'd once told his pediatrician, "took away the fear." He'd always shown such determination in the face of adversity, whether it was his health, injuries or disappointments and, with the help of those people, he'd always come back stronger than ever. The Bounce-Back Kid. It was as if he'd been in training for this greatest test of his will and courage.

Yes, she'd thought about his question a lot and knew how to answer him. "Chris," she said, "your whole life has prepared you for this."

Chris's eyes were shiny with tears, but he managed a smile. "I'm ready," he said quietly as the nurses wheeled him away.

"We love you, Chris," his family and girlfriend called after him as his gurney was pushed through the doors.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson