Just when he thought he might not survive, he got word that a liver was available. The donor was Billy Flood, a 13-year-old boy who’d been accidentally shot by a neighbor at his grandmother’s home in Westminster, Colo.
On July 28, 2000, Klug received a liver transplant at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.
He had just one question for his surgeon, Igal Kam, M.D. “I said, ‘The 2002 winter Olympics are fast approaching. I’d really like to win a medal on home soil. Can it be done?’ He said, ‘It’s never been done before, but I don’t see why you can’t.’ That was all I needed to hear.”
By Klug’s own account, his recovery was “miraculous.” “I was out of the hospital in four days. No infection, no rejection. I was on a stationary bike less than a week later.”
He joked that the 38 staples running down his midsection “looked like a great white had taken a bite out of me.”
After weeks of rehabilitation to repair core muscles that had been cut during the operation, Klug was able to get back on his snowboard. A year-and-a-half later, he was carrying the American flag in the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic games.
In his second Olympic attempt, Klug was determined to bring home a medal. “After everything I went through with being on a waiting list for six years, it motivated me even more. It also gave me a heck of a perspective. It made me realize how fortunate I was.”
When Klug won the bronze medal, Billy Flood’s family was in the crowd watching. “They are an amazing family,” Klug says. “They gave the greatest gift of all to a complete stranger, and saved my life and the lives of others after what was a horrible time for them.”
Chris Klug Foundation
The Flood family’s selflessness inspired Klug to pay his donated liver forward. In 2003, he founded the Chris Klug Foundation to raise awareness of organ donation.
“Often the first time young people have exposure to the organ donation question is when they go to the DMV and get their license. It says, ‘Do you want to be an organ donor? Check yes or no.’ Often young people will say no because they don’t really understand it,” says Klug. “We make sure they make an educated decision.”
The foundation does about 75 events each year with middle and high schools around the country. It teaches kids about the benefits of organ donation, and how to sign up. The organization also runs an active social media campaign, which it estimates will reach more than 2 million people in 2017.
Since the Foundation started its outreach efforts, the state of Colorado’s organ donor registration rates have jumped to 67 percent. “I think we’ve played a big part in that,” Klug says.
Life after transplant
Today, Klug divides his time between his foundation and a real estate business he runs in Aspen. He’s married with two children, ages 3 and 6. Both kids are already avid skiers.
He also finds time to visit hospitals and meet with other transplant recipients. “It’s pretty neat to show these patients my bronze medal and tell them I did this a year and a half after my lifesaving liver transplant,” he says. “You see their eyes light up and they say, ‘Wow. You did this after your liver transplant? I can do this, too.’”
Klug no longer snowboards competitively, but he does take part in the occasional mountain bike race. “I’m way healthier and way stronger than I ever was before my transplant,” he says. “I was very fortunate to have been given a second chance.”
October 16, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN