Every 10 minutes in the United States, another person is added to the waiting list for an organ transplant. More than 6,500 people a year—about 18 a day—die before a suitable organ becomes available. A recent survey by Astellas Pharma US found that although 57 percent of respondents would be willing to donate their organs after death, only 42 percent were actually registered as donors.
This is a statistic we can change with education—and one Aspen resident is doing just that. Professional snowboarder Chris Klug—the first-ever tranplant recipient to win an Olympic medal—was on the transplant waiting list for six years before he was matched with a liver donor. We spoke with Klug about his transplant, the importance of organ donation, and how he’s helping to spread the word through his nonprofit, the Chris Klug Foundation.
5280: How’d you become a pro snowboarder?
Chris Klug: As soon as I could walk, my mom had me on skis. I was an avid skateboarder, which led me to snowboarding when I was about eight or nine years old. That was my real passion. I qualified for the first-ever Olympic snowboarding team in 1998. But few people knew in 1998 that I was actually on a transplant waiting list.
5280: What put you on that list?
CK: I was diagnosed in my early 20s with a rare and life-threatening liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitits (PSC) through a routine physical—the same disease that led to the death of one of my boyhood heroes, football great Walter Payton. I went to University Hospital in Denver and met with a liver disease specialist, and they informed me that one day I’d need a liver transplant. I’ll never forget looking around the room when they told me that and thinking: “Who are they talking to? They can’t be talking to me, I feel like a million bucks.”
5280: How long were you on the transplant list?
CK: About six years. Being on that waiting list is a scary place to be. I’m often asked, “How hard is it to bounce back from a liver transplant?” And I don’t want to say it’s easy or make light of it, because it’s tough—but nothing compared to the waiting list. I was lucky that initially I was still healthy and able to continue competing on the snowboarding circuit, still pretty active and pursuing my Olympic dreams. But the last couple of years my health really deteroriated and it was pretty rough.
5280: How did that change you?
CK: As scary as it was, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There were times when I thought I may never get that call and die on a waiting list. And it was scary hoping and praying for a second chance, and not knowing what your future holds. When I did get that call, it was definitely a reason to celebrate and I was very grateful.
5280: Did the surgery go smoothly?
CK: The surgery was a little scary. But I woke up six hours later and it felt like a new engine got dropped in me! I remember thinking “Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.” I don’t think I realized how sick I really was. I was out of the hospital four days later. I had a pretty miraculous recovery. I was riding a bike a week later, and back on my snowboard just seven weeks later.
5280: Is six years a long time to be on a transplant list?
CK: It depends on what area you’re from, your blood type, and your size. There are a number of different factors that go into that formula.
5280: What can people do to help?
CK: Share their decision on organ donation, know the facts, and ultimately, document that decision through the state registry. I encourage everyone to do it. I’m here today because of [organ donors’] selfless and heroic decisions. One donor can save up to eight lives, and improve as many as 100 lives. So even if you’re not here any longer, you can have a really significant impact on other people’s lives.
5280: You started a foundation to help spread the word about organ donation.
CK: I started the Chris Klug Foundation in 2003. I made a commitment to do whatever I could to help those people that are going through the same thing I did nearly 13 years ago. I’m so proud of it. In 2012 we hosted almost 75 events nationwide, and we do a lot with young people on high school campuses. We host Donor Dudes events, which is our youth outreach initiative. And we’ve distributed about 2,000 videos in high school health and driver’s ed classes. It allows young people, as they get their licenses, to make informed decisions.
5280: What’s next for you?
CK: I competed on the World Cup Circuit for 20-plus years and got to do three Winter Olympics. I retired competitively after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Now I’m loving being home full-time in Aspen and not living out of a suitcase. I’m a new father, so that is keeping me busy. Another thing about organ donation is the ripple effect. I’m here today—but my daughter is, too. It’s a multi-generational gift.
Watch it: Check out Klug’s educational video, Know the Facts, Share Your Decision.
Get Involved: Contact the Chris Klug Foundation for more information on how your school or office can host a Donor Dudes event. Help spread the word about organ donation and the lives it can save. Coloradans can sign up to become donors at donatelifecolorado.org; out-of-staters use donatelife.net.
—Image courtesy of Matt Power Photography