This weekend marks the 4th Annual Summit for Life, spiritual brainchild of snowboarder and local Olympian Chris Klug. The event benefits the Chris Klug Foundation, dedicated to promoting lifesaving organ donation and improving the quality of life for donors, donor families, organ transplant candidates and recipients. A panel discussion on transplant issues kicked off the weekend this Thursday, at the Given Institute, and the Wine and Dine for Life and Party of Life took over downtown this Friday. Still to come, the grand finale, the Summit for Life Uphill Race this Saturday, December 12, with after-party to follow atop Aspen Mountain featuring dinner, awards and local music men Jes Grew.
The event celebrates life and personal summits, while shedding much needed light on the organ donation process. New this year, Thursday’s panel discussion featured Klug, his doctor Igal Kam, heart transplant recipient and accomplished climber Kelly Perkins and Bob Wade, a committed local athlete and business owner whose son Robbie died in a skateboarding accident. Wade and his family made sure that Robbie’s organs were put to good use, saving 4-6 lives through the transplant process.
Wade served as mediator during the night’s discussion and not only answered, but asked, some tough questions: How do you thank someone properly for the gift of life?
Klug received a liver transplant in 2002 and went on to win an Olympic Bronze medal in 2002. Klug’s organ donor was a 13 year-old gunshot victim and he wrote an anonymous thank-you letter to his family through Donor Alliance. The process stays anonymous unless the family chooses to change it. Klug’s donor family wanted to meet him.
Wade asked Klug whether he feels the presence of his donor, to which Klug replied: “Yes, I do, Bob. Without a doubt. I won my bronze medal and actually got to meet them soon thereafter; I was more nervous about the meeting than the Olympic run. I had written the letter, thanking God and their family every day, for being able to do what I can do and for getting a second chance, a new lease on life; they came to meet me after my win and brought a big cake. I put my medal around their necks and even after a year and a half, it felt like nothing I could do would ever be enough.”
Wade, however, opted not to meet or know anything about the families who benefited from his son Robbie’s organ donation. “Robbie’s gift was enough; I didn’t want to know about the recipients - if they needed the organs, they were worthy - and I wanted that gift to be the focus of it all. It’s a double-edged sword, of course, filled with emotional ups and downs and we just want to concentrate on moving on. Robbie was a guy that liked to move forward, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The microphone went to Klug, who had a mishap with a training gate and is in a cast these days; he drew laughter from the audience while describing his many orthopedic injuries. “I’m not a knuckle-dragger anymore, I’m an elbow-dragger now; I need to adjust,” he confided, with a smile. His coach, always full of positive nuggets, reminded him that attitude is everything.
Throughout the organ donation process, too, Klug’s positive, hopeful attitude has been essential to his recovery. “The first few months, I was scared of rejection – the ‘R’ word; you catch a cold and you freak out but then time goes by and now, 9 years later, I’ve gotten into a good routine. Believing in the process was a big part for me,” he shares.
“My main concern wasn’t ‘will I survive’, but ‘will I have the same quality of life.’ Initially, you think it’s a death sentence but then you realize it’s such a blessing. I feel healthier and stronger than I’ve ever been, and I feel like I’ve taken what was such a tragedy for another family and turned it into some sort of positive thing with my life. I don’t take one run for granted, not one single turn,” he says.
Dr. Kam hails from Israel but has been at the University of Colorado for over 20 years. His feelings on organ donation are passionate and his observations are crucial: “There are enough potential organ donors in the US to for anyone who may need it, if only everyone would become an organ donor. Not everyone is as generous as you and your family, Bob,” he said to Wade, in a nod of gratitude.
Seated next to Dr. Kam was heart transplant recipient, author and accomplished mountaineer Kellie Perkins. She’d been the picture of health, active and outdoorsy in Lake Tahoe when she caught a random virus which attacked her heart. “It led to cardiomyopathy and there was scarring, interruptions in my heart’s cycle…I was taking over 30 pills a day for three years when I finally developed congestive heart failure. Miraculously, there was a heart waiting for me within 24 hours,” she recalls of her surgery, 14 years ago.
“I had been living in Southern California at that point and I walked around like it was winter in Aspen; I was always cold,” she continues. “I remember waking up from the surgery and my mom leaning over and saying, ‘Your feet. They’re so warm.’”
It was whole new quantity of blood flow, and a whole new quality of life.
Since the surgery, Perkins has reached the peak of many of the worlds great mountains, including one of the Seven Summits, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. “I’ve always had a lot of personal mottos but after the transplant, I had a lot of fear as to what I could do. I really wanted to explore my capabilities, as opposed to thinking what could go wrong. I’d set goals for myself - I’m going to climb this particular mountain – in order to get enough inspiration to overcome my fears. Things were good before the transplant but it was about normalcy; now, I really want to have a well-thought out challenge, each and every day.”
She’s written a book about her journey, The Climb of My Life, and she and her husband Craig recently founded the Moving Hearts Foundation. Like Klug, Perkins’ outlook was crucial to her experience. “My doctor would never let me forget I was alive, throughout the whole process; I’d make plans, and I’d constantly have to cancel them but I kept on making them. I always had hope,” Perkins explains.
.”I do yoga every morning and I used to light two candles, one for me and one for my heart; finally, about 4 years ago, I started to just light one,” she shares, quietly.
Anti-rejection medications constantly improve and the success rate of organ transplantation continues to grow. By checking that box on your driver’s license, or going online to donor registry, each and every person can become an organ donor. “I hope people will see the success stories – me, Kelly, people around the country, and see what’s possible, “says Klug.
The Summit for Life Weekend reaches higher goals each and every year; The 1st Annual Summit for Life Weekend attracted 150 racers; for this year’s 4th Annual, over 400 participants are expected. The panel discussion at the Given Institute added a compelling educational component and this year’s final party promises to be the most festive to date.
To ride the Gondola for Life to the grand finale and greet the racers on their way in and for more info on the race, the cause and how to get involved, visit www.summitforlife.org. For more info on organ donation, www.chrisklugfoundation.org.