Sunday, February 10, 2002
Two families make one dream a reality
Scripps Howard News Service
When U.S. Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug shreds down the mountain this week, one heartbroken but proud mom will be yelling "Go, Chris!" and "Go, Billy!"
"I'll cheer for them both," said Leisa Flood, mother of Billy Flood, whose liver is keeping Klug alive.
Billy Flood was 13 when he was shot and killed by a friend in Adams County, Colo., in summer 2000.
Klug, 28, who started skiing at Vail when he was 2, was diagnosed with a rare liver disease nine years ago. He received Billy's liver after the boy's death.
"I'm so grateful that the (Flood) family was willing to give me the gift of life," Klug said.
The story of how Billy died from a gunshot wound and how Klug's life was saved by a donated liver link the two families forever, say the father of the Olympian and the mother of the dead boy.
Klug was a natural athlete and adventurer who started skateboarding at age 10, became an all-state quarterback in Oregon and joined the International Snowboard Federation Tour a year after high school graduation.
Life was great for the Klugs, especially after the family moved to Aspen, where their son could rely on good snow, and his father, Warren, ran the Aspen Square Motel.
Then Chris Klug became sick. He was diagnosed in 1993 with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare, degenerative disease that killed football great Walter Payton. It affects one person in 10,000, mostly young men.
Klug wasn't in immediate danger and continued to snowboard while adding his name to a liver recipient list.
Klug finished sixth at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. But by May 2000, his liver condition was so serious doctors knew he was in urgent need of a transplant. "It felt like a dagger had been jabbed into my side," Klug said. "I was deteriorating each week."
In summer 2000, Billy Flood lived with his mother at the Mobile Gardens trailer park on North Federal Boulevard in Adams County.
"He would work all day, shoveling walks or doing lawns," Leisa Flood recalled. "He'd get paid and then spend money on everybody but himself."
Billy was no angel, but he was kindhearted, his mother said. She also said his friend, Patrick Rosene, 14, had been picking on him for weeks.
A week later, on July 25, 2000, while she was out and Billy and Patrick were smoking marijuana at the trailer home, Billy was shot, according to court testimony.
Leisa Flood, now an apprentice ironworker in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, remembers the nightmare at the hospital.
"I watched the machines, the blood going from my boy's head," she said.
"My husband said, 'Leisa, he's dead,' but he was breathing on his own, and they couldn't convince me."
The doctor explained organ harvest to Leisa Flood and her husband, Rob. Rob Flood said it was what Billy would want, but Leisa Flood couldn't let go.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, they're going to cut my boy up in little pieces.'
"But then, I was just sitting with him and thinking about what a giving and loving person he was. He would want someone to live."
On July 28, Chris Klug got the call. He was rushed to University Hospital in Denver, where Dr. Igal Kam and his team performed the delicate liver transplant operation.
Six months later, he won a World Cup parallel giant slalom race at Kronplatz, Italy.
"I can't imagine how hard it must have been for the family to go through the tragedy of losing a son," Warren Klug said. "For people to do that, to benefit other families they don't even know, it's a very courageous and caring thing to do."
Billy was buried in his father's hometown, Mullan, Idaho, and Leisa Flood soon followed to be close to the grave. Rob Flood still lives in Mullan, about 100 miles from Coeur d'Alene.
Soon after her son's death, Donor Alliance gave Leisa Flood the names of all the people who were living with Billy's organs, but the name "Chris Klug" meant nothing to her.
Only two weeks ago she learned that he is a world-class snowboarder.
"I would really love to meet Chris, to meet all the families," she said. "The ironic thing is, (Billy) always wanted to learn to snowboard. But I never could afford it. He got a snowboarding video game and a T-shirt from a snowboarding shop."
Klug, who was selected to the Olympic snowboard giant slalom team last weekend after top showings in Italy and Austria, wants to meet the Floods. But because they discovered each other's identities so recently, he wants to wait until after he races in the Olympics.
"They're the real heroes in this thing, without a doubt," Klug said. "I wouldn't be here doing what I love, pursuing my Olympic dream, without them.
It's going to be a very special meeting."
Klug has become an evangelist for donor awareness, hoping to make a dent in the 18,000-name-long waiting list of people needing a liver, of which 1,800 likely will die waiting.
Meanwhile, Leisa Flood is trying to put her world back together.
"My boy was my world," she said. "I don't understand how God allows something like this to happen, but I believe there was a reason for it. He won't feel pain anymore. Every time I see a blond-haired kid, it's hard. The death of a child is a pain you can't explain."
Life goes on, and Leisa Flood's two grown daughters are talking about taking up snowboarding.
"When I first heard that Chris was an Olympic snowboarder, I cried. But then, I just started laughing," she said. "I still talk to my son; it's part of my grieving. I told Billy, 'God, son, you're going to the Olympics!' "