Every four years I look forward to the Olympics, not just because I enjoy watching the various sports, but to be inspired by the best athletes in the world. They’ve all overcome unique challenges and obstacles to get where they are and stand on that podium in front of millions of fans watching them on their televisions, computers, smart devices across the world.
Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug faced a challenge no other Olympic bronze medalist before him had ever faced, he was diagnosed with PSC and had to have an organ transplant. Never one to let the odds stand in his way, Chris remarkably won a bronze medal in the Parallel Giant Slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, making him the first organ transplant recipient to win an Olympic bronze medal.
Chris Klug and David Fleming of Donate Life America were kind enough to join me for an interview this week to discuss Chris’ diagnosis and transplant, the common myths and misconceptions about organ donation, and steps you can take to become an organ donor.
Candace Rose: Chris, as the first ever organ transplant recipient to ever win an Olympic bronze medal. Can you tell us how you overcame such a huge obstacle?
Chris Klug: “Yeah, Candace. I was diagnosed in the early 90s with a very rare autoimmune condition called PSC (Primary sclerosing cholangitis), a liver disease that causes a constant scarring in the bio ducts part of your liver and ultimately leads to a potentially very dangerous and critical cancer. I was informed in my early twenties that one day I would need a liver transplant, and that’s scary news. I remember looking around the room when I was informed and thinking who are they talking to? They can’t be talking to me. I feel like a million bucks and I’m out there doing what I love to do and very active and healthy, and yet there was something really wrong with me.
I was on a waiting list for almost six years, and about three months at a critical stage. I would say that was the most difficult of the whole process. I was just hanging out and hoping and praying for a second chance, and not knowing what your future holds. All of us like to be in charge of our own destiny, and when there’s something wrong we fix it. And really you’re at the mercy of a donor that makes a very heroic and selfless decision and gives someone like myself a second chance at life. I’m forever grateful for that decision to donate by my donor family, and all donors and I’m here today because of it.”
Candace Rose: Can you explain the process you went through for the transplant? Were there any difficulties you encountered?
Chris Klug: “I would say, Candace, that being on the waiting list at that critical stage and being so familiar with all the scary statistics. When I went through the process almost 13 years ago there were 86,000 people waiting for transplants across the country. We now know that number is about 115,000 and so we know that the need is great.
I would say without a doubt that was the most difficult part of the transplant process for me. Because my recovery- I had a miraculous recovery, I was out of the hospital four days later, riding my snowboard seven weeks later, and competing in my second Winter Olympics just a year and a half later. And granted I don’t want to make light of it, I had a huge incision that went from my sternum to my right oblique and about 36 staples in my midsection. It looked like a great white took a bite out of me, but that really paled in comparison to the fear of the unknown and being on that waiting list. And not knowing if and when you’d ever get that call and that new lease on life.”
Candace Rose: David, can you tell us about the recent survey that took place, and the findings?
David Fleming: “One of the important findings in the survey is knowing that opportunities like this are important for people who are trying to decide whether or not they would like to register to be a donor. And that’s hearing from people like Chris that have these inspirational stories and are such a testament to the fact that donation and transplantation works. It really has become part of every day medicine and it saves peoples lives every day. The other important factor in that is recognizing that it doesn’t happen without the generosity of donors and their families.
One of the things that we discovered in the survey is that just about half of the people that responded, 48% were unaware of just how easy it is to register to be a donor. In today’s world it’s as easy as going online to our website: DonateLife.net, clicking on the register button and taking a couple of minutes out of your day to register to be a donor in your state so that your family knows what you want to do. We want you to share that information, encourage your friends to do the same. But the most important thing that people can do to provide hope to patients awaiting like Chris who was waiting six years on that transplant list, is to register to be a donor. It’s very easy you just go to DonateLife.net for more information and to register today.”
Candace Rose: What do you think discourages people from registering as organ donors?
David Fleming: “It’s the myths and misperceptions predominately around donation and transplantation that are held by a lot of people. It’s erroneously thinking it’s against their religion because all major religions accept donation and transplantation as an incredible act of generosity. It’s the concern that if I talk about it it might happen, or a very common misperception is this thought that they’re not going to try as hard to save me if they know that I’m a donor, which everyone’s priority is to save more lives whether you’re a registered donor or not.
We really want people to understand that they can trust the system, and people like Chris are just living proof of the incredible things that happen when Americans decide to make the decision to donate, educate their families to their wish, and take a simple step to register, and we produce miracles like Chris Klug.”
Candace Rose: Do either of you have any additional information you’d like to share?
Chris Klug: “I would recommend that everyone visit DonateLife.net, learn about their state registries and the opportunity to register. It just takes a couple minutes, and if they have questions too, that’s a great resource. April is National Donate Life month so celebrate life and second chances and share that decision with your family, and document it through your state registries next time you go to the DMV, but don’t wait.”