Snowboarder Chris Klug’s Transplant Triumph
Advocacy The world-class snowboarder went from life-threatening liver failure to the bronze medal.
In July of 2000, Chris Klug had a liver transplant at the University Hospital in Denver. Nine years earlier, he had been diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic disease caused by progressive inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts of the liver.
“When I was first diagnosed I was in total denial and determined to prove the doctors wrong,” he recalls. “But every kind of holistic, non-traditional approach didn’t seem to be working. My liver enzymes were still elevated and the constrictions and scarring of my bile ducts was progressing.”
Even in the face of adversity, Klug remained positive. “It wasn’t until I went in for my transplant that I felt scared,” he shares. “Not on the first day; on the first day my adrenaline was pumping and I felt like myself before a competition. But the next morning, I thought, ‘I’m not going to wake up from this.’”
The waiting game
According to United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 119,000 people need a lifesaving organ transplant. Of those, 77,232 people are active waiting list candidates. Blood type and other medical factors weigh into the allocation of every donated organ, but each organ type has its own individual distribution policy, which reflects factors that are unique to each organ type.
In late 2000, Klug — who had been on a transplant waiting list for years — took a turn for the worse and was at a critical stage. “I’d been on the waiting list almost six years when I got the call,” he remembers. “I wasn’t quite on death’s doorstep, but I was getting closer.”
A perfect match?
Klug’s donor was a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally killed by a neighbor playing with a gun. His family donated his organs, including his liver, which proved to be a perfect match.
After surgery, Chris returned to training, qualified for the U.S. team and became the first transplant recipient to make the Olympic Games. What pushed Klug to this new level of success?
“Being on death’s doorstep one day and getting a new lease on life the next is the best answer,” he urges. “It sounds cliché, but you realize what’s important in life — your friends, family, faith and quality of life. Racing my snowboard was truly icing on the cake.”
Klug has since retired from the World Cup snowboarding circuit but is using his story to inspire people who might be facing similar situations. His advice for the men, women and children on the waiting list: “Eat healthy, exercise, keep your mind occupied and get involved in the transplant community.”