PINEHURST – Chris Klug owes his life to a teenage boy and a family that recognized the value of organ donation.
Because of their selfless gift, Klug became the first transplant recipient to win an Olympic medal, a bronze in the 2002 Winter Olympics. He has also been inspired to share his unique story in an effort to spread organ donation and transplant awareness.
Klug will speak about being “To the Edge and Back” during the Foundation of FirstHealth’s Promise of Hope Lecture Series on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Country Club of North Carolina. During his visit to Moore County, he will also speak about organ donation during special programs scheduled at Pinecrest and Union Pines High schools.
“It’s something that’s very important to me,” Klug says of organ donation. “I’m here today because of it.”
Klug, whose father once managed Moore County’s Foxfire Golf & Country Club, was only 22 and an ascending star in competitive snowboarding when a routine physical revealed Primary Sclerosing Cholangitits (PSC). A rare degenerative bile duct condition that causes liver scarring, PSC later claimed the life of Klug’s boyhood hero, NFL great Walter Peyton.
Liver transplant is the only treatment.
Klug, who felt fine and was at the time racing at the highest competitive level, was staggered by the diagnosis. “There was no way I needed a transplant,” he recalls about his response. “I felt like a million bucks.”
After the diagnosis came the long and difficult wait for a donor organ. “Your life is put on hold,” Klug says. “You hope and pray daily for a second chance. I wore a pager every minute of the day and carried a cell phone as a back-up in anticipation of receiving a call from the University Hospital Transplant Team informing me that a liver was available.”
Klug’s wait took six years. For most of that time, he still felt well. That began to change in the spring of 2000, when he started to experience pain that “felt like someone had stuck a dagger in me.” By then, his liver had become so scarred that it had begun to shut down and his status on the donor list was upgraded to a more critical stage.
Fortunately, his wait for an organ was just about over.
Klug’s surgery took place on July 28, 2000, at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver. The donated liver, a perfect match, came from a 13-year-old boy who had died in a gunshot accident.
“It was a pretty amazing thing he and his family did,” Klug says. “They made a selfless and heroic decision.”
Klug attributes his transplant success to his “great transplant team” and “lots of answered prayers and good luck” as well as to the successful donor match. He spent four days in the hospital and was back in the gym lightly riding a stationary bike and lifting his arms within a week.
Four and a half weeks post-surgery, he was on his road bike, although admittedly “sucking wind” behind the two friends he was riding with. Seven weeks after his surgery, he started light abdominal strengthening and a week later he was on his way to Mt. Hood, Oregon, and his first runs back on a snowboard.
Klug, who had competed in his first Winter Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, was anxious for another shot at a medal and achieved his dream with the bronze in 2002 in Salt Lake City – just 19 months after his transplant. Earlier this year, at age 37, he competed in his third Olympic Games, finishing seventh in the snowboarding parallel giant slalom in Vancouver before wrapping up 20 years on the international snowboarding circuit with an impressive showing at the National Championships in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
After his transplant experience, a “committed to give back” Klug established the Chris Klug Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting living tissue donation and improving the quality of life for donors, donor families, and transplant candidates and recipients. The organization includes a “Donor Dudes” initiative that sends Klug to high school and college campuses throughout the nation with his organ donation and transplantation message.
“In six years, I think we’ve done amazing things,” he says.
Moore Regional Hospital Foundation Board member Steve Menendez thinks so, too. He and his family became acquainted with Klug’s parents and siblings when they lived in Moore County and stayed in touch after the Klugs returned to Colorado.
During Colorado skiing trips, the Menendez family has visited the Klug home in Aspen where, Menendez recalls, an entire room used to be filled with Chris’s snowboards and where conversation was filled with talk of his snowboarding exploits.
“Chris was sometimes in town and sometimes wasn’t,” Menendez says. “He was busy pursuing his career at the time. He’s accomplished some amazing things over the years.”
Aware of Klug’s work with organ donation awareness, Menendez took the story to the Foundation of FirstHealth and suggested it as a possible Promise of Hope program.
“I think when you can put in front of people somebody who has been in the position he’s been in, whose life has been saved by organ donation, it’s very inspirational,” says Menendez. “When you have somebody who has overcome incredible obstacles to succeed at the highest level, it’s an opportunity to get more people to listen to his story.”
Menendez expects that Klug will be especially successful at communicating his story to the high school students at Pinecrest and Union Pines, where he will talk to the young people about the importance of checking the organ donation box when applying for a learner’s permit or driver’s license.
“His organ came from a 13-year-old,” Menendez says, “and eventually the family reached out to him. I think that’s really left him with a very strong impression. It’s a dual message to reach out to the schools and let them know these things happen. The kids love him. He’s hip and young. That’s appealing, too. He can really relate to them and tell them how important these things are.”
The Promise of Hope Lecture “To the Edge and Back,” featuring Chris Klug, will be held Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Country Club of North Carolina. Registration will begin at 5:30 p.m. for the program that will get under way at 6 p.m. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will follow. Klug’s book, “To the Edge and Back – My Story from Transplant Survivor to Olympic Snowboarder,” will be available for purchase after the program. To register, call (910) 695-7510.