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In the early 1990s, snowboarder Chris Klug was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a life-threatening disease that led to the death of his boyhood hero, Walter Payton. But it took years for Klug to finally receive the liver transplant that saved his life.
"I was on a waiting list six years, and in critical stage for three months," Klug recalled. "It was the most difficult part of my life -- being on a waiting list, hoping and praying and not knowing what would happen.
"I was just hanging on. It was such a tough place to be. Each week and month that passes, you're weaker and weaker. I hadn't given up hope, but I was thinking, 'Will I die on this waiting list?'"
Klug did not die. He received a transplant in July of 2000 and recovered so quickly he was back on a bike within a week. Even more impressively, he won a bronze medal in snowboarding less than two years later at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Today, he says, he is healthier and stronger than he ever was.
Unfortunately, not everyone who needs an organ transplant is so fortunate. There are more than 115,000 people currently awaiting transplants in the United States, according to David Fleming, the CEO of Donate Life America. And approximately 6,500 will die each year while waiting for the transplant that will never come.
"We just don't have organs available,'' Fleming said.
Klug wants to help change that, so he's working to get the word out. April was national organ donor awareness month, and Klug and Fleming want to get more people on the donor list. The more on the list, the more organs that will become available and the more people who will live. Fleming says the majority of Americans support organ donation but that not all of them take the necessary step of signing themselves up as potential donors.
"Support is very high -- the challenge is that a lot of people postpone their decision to donate an organ,'' he said. "A lot of people think you need a driver's license. You don't. Just go to donatelife.net.''
Klug competed in three Olympics -- 1998 in Nagano, 2002 in Salt Lake and 2010 in Vancouver, where he finished seventh. He retired after the 2010 Games.
"My story speaks to the fact that transplants are mainstream,'' Klug said. "I had a pretty speedy recovery. Obviously, I'm alive today because of an organ donor that said yes. They're the real heroes of my progress.''