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Outside the Lines: Walter Payton, Giving Thanks
Remarkable advances in transplant science have made once deadly diseases curable. And new procedures are being developed and perfected almost constantly, procedures that give life or improve the quality of life.
But thousands who need hearts, lungs, kidneys, and other vital organs are languishing on waiting lists. And each year, more than 5,000 of them die. The real tragedy, medical experts say, is that nearly all of them could be saved, and that more than 60 percent of cadaver organs that could be donated and transplanted are not.
Before he died from complications from liver disease, Walter Payton worked to see those figures changed. In Payton's memory, the National Football League and the United States Senate are trying to raise awareness to encourage increased donations.
Walter Payton died too young. The hope is that he will help others live.
Walter Payton, former NFL player- To the people that really care about me, just continue to pray. And to those who are going to say what they want to say, may God be with you also.
Schaap- Walter Payton never received the new liver he needed. Before he had moved to the top of the waiting list, cancer had spread through his body, making him ineligible for a donor organ.
Dr. Dixon Kaufman, transplant surgeon, Northwestern University Medical Center- If it were possible for him perhaps to have received a liver immediately upon notice that he had this severe liver disease, it is possible that he could have successfully received a transplant and still be alive today.
Mike Ditka, former NFL coach- Here is a young man who was the epitome of conditioning and strength. And he was the rock. And to have your body deteriorate like that right before your very eyes and you can't stop it, well, I guess it's not only mind boggling, but it makes you pretty much aware that we're all pretty vulnerable.
Schaap- Each year in the United States, approximately 15,000 people die in such a manner as to make them eligible as organ donors. But only about 5,800 actually become organ donors.
Kaufman- And it's further compounded by the fact that for each organ donor, three or four or five people could be transplanted with organs whose lives will be helped or saved.
Schaap- Even as he was dying, Walter Payton tried to remedy the problem by raising awareness, by bringing attention to the great need for donors. Two weeks after he found out that his cancer made him ineligible for a transplant, he still filmed a public service announcement urging people to consider organ donation.
Payton's widow Connie has continued the fight.
Connie Payton, Walter Payton's widow- I truly intend to carry on his legacy and what he meant. And I know this would be important to him. He didn't like a lot of attention or anything like that. But I know this is something he would want me to do.
Ditka- He's smiling somewhere. And he's saying, "This is what you should do." And he's applauding Connie for carrying on the battle.
Schaap- Like Connie Payton, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has taken up the cause. He and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, who also happens to be a transplant surgeon, co-sponsored National Give Thanks Give Life Weekend, which culminated last Sunday with ceremonies and awareness drives at several NFL stadiums.
Senator Dick Durbin (D), Illinois- Take a look at Soldier Field on a good Sunday. And that's just about the number of people across America who are waiting for the telephone to ring to find out whether there's an organ donor who gives them a chance to live, 72,000 people across the United States.
You know, we have 60 people each day who get an organ transplant. But we have 16 people who die waiting for an organ donor each day. In America, we can do a lot more.
Schaap- The key to saving more lives, Durbin says, is simply raising awareness of the critical need for organ donors.
Durbin- Signing your driver's license is certainly a good indication of what's in your mind and your heart. But the most important thing is to tell members of your family because they're the ones who are going to be approached at some moment. And some doctors is going to ask, "What was his intention? What did he want to do when it came to organ donation?"
Schaap- When she was 10 years old, Brianne Bacon was killed by a brain tumor. Her parents Rick and Stacy donated Brianne's organs to the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois.
Stacy Bacon, Brianne's mother- It was a little difficult to make the decision. Then I put myself in the place of the parent sitting at the hospital with a child who needed an organ transplant in order to live. And then, no, the decision wasn't hard.
Schaap- For their gift, the Bacons were among those donor families honored last Sunday at Soldier Field.
Rick Bacon, Brianne's father- If I can keep another parent from having to go through what we went through, it was all worth it then.
Schaap- In the end, what is the satisfaction? What is the gratification of knowing you've helped someone?
S. Bacon- Well, the fact that our daughter lives on in four lives. She saved four lives with her organs and her gift of life. And it's helped us through our grief and the healing process from her death.
We not only lost Brianne, but we've gained an extended family out of her gift of life to those four people. It's a great satisfaction.
Schaap- Fifteen-year-old Katie Cocelko suffers from cystic fibrosis, which makes it difficult for her to breathe. When she was 11, she received a lifesaving double lung transplant.
Katie Cocelko, organ recipient- No amount of words can express how thankful I am to be able to get the transplant when so many other people are waiting and that I was just lucky to live long enough to receive my lungs.
Schaap- Katie is again on the waiting list for lungs. Right now her lung capacity is around 70 percent. But if it were to suddenly drop, she would need a transplant quickly.
Cocelko- If you donate organs and tissue from one person, you can make up to 30 people's lives better because of that.
Schaap- In the months following Walter Payton's death, donations in Illinois surged. Due his efforts on behalf of organ donation and the work that continues in his name, more people are aware of the need for organs than ever before.
Kaufman- The amount of organ donation activity just in the Chicago and Illinois area alone was so high that it was almost as much of an increase in those few months as all the gains made in the last five or six years.
Schaap- Thanks to Walter Payton.
Kaufman- Thanks to Walter Payton and his family.
Schaap- But with Payton gone now for more than a year, organ donations have leveled off and his memory is again being invoked to help save lives.
Kaufman- I think this season of Thanksgiving, we all have a lot to be thankful for, for how healthy we are, how healthy our family is. And we have to remember there are many people not as fortunate as we are. But we can do the right thing and help them in an unselfish and altruistic way. We ourselves can be like Walter Payton if we have to.
Schaap- For further information on organ donation, you can log on to the Internet at givethanksgivelife.org.
When we come back, a conversation with Connie Payton, Walter Payton's widow.
Schaap- What does it mean to Walter's legacy that there is this drive to raise awareness for organ donation?
C. Payton- Well, actually, it means a lot. It means a lot that there are people in the city of Chicago and around the world who really love and respect Walter and are willing to really -- in light of -- out of respect for him want to make a difference in saving a life. And so I think it's a good thing.
Schaap- How precious is this cause to you?
C. Payton- I'm glad to just really play whatever role needed. To me now, it's a very simple thing to do. And if I can play a role in making a difference, in getting people to continue to see the importance of it, then I'm happy.
Schaap- The NFL has made some efforts on behalf of awareness. You must be pleased to see that happening.
C. Payton- I really am. I think they've been wonderful, though, throughout. They get involved in a lot of good causes. And so I really wasn't surprised at that, that it was an easy thing for them to do.
Schaap- One of the extraordinary aspects of the story, from what I understand just a couple of weeks after Walter found out he was no longer eligible for a donation, for a transplant, he filmed a public service announcement on behalf of transplantation.
C. Payton- Yes he did. But that's the typical Walter though. That's how he was. I don't think -- he wasn't a selfish person, and especially when it came to giving back and helping people and touching lives. So...
Schaap- What do you think it is about Walter and people's memory of him that makes them do something like decide to donate their organs or their loved one's organs? I mean, that's an extraordinary tribute to someone.
C. Payton- You know, you hear story after story of personal encounters that he'd had with people who had never met him. And, of course, once they spotted him, they were excited that, "Oh, my goodness, that's Walter Payton," and how easy it was for him to come over, start a conversation.
Like for instance, one man shared with me the other day, he was on a plane with Walter. And everybody was shocked that Walter, he had a box of chocolate mints. He was walking around the plane serving people his chocolate mints.
So it's those types of things I think. And I think that's why it's so easy for people to really want to get involved even with him not being here.
Schaap- In a strange way, and this is difficult, but in a strange way also by virtue of his death and the fact that he died without receiving the liver, he gave a lot of people faith almost in the system because people beforehand said, "Oh, Walter Payton, he's a celebrity. He's going to move to the top of the waiting list, no problem."
But people saw that the system itself is not corrupt. And as painful as that was, that was an important lesson as well, wasn't it?
C. Payton- Yes. And that's how it should be. And Walter wouldn't have had it any other way. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
And he didn't want preferential treatment because of who he was. And it's nice to see that he was treated like everybody else.
And it is a good system. And hopefully with that, people will continue to feel more comfortable again with being organ donors and realizing that it really does work. So...
Schaap- Did he ever express to you as he was progressively getting worse and his liver was failing any frustration regarding the fact that there weren't available transplant organs for him?
C. Payton- No, he did not. You know, we had a lot of faith that the whole thing was going to work out. And there was no doubt that if it was just only him needing a liver within the two years, he would have gotten that liver.
And I believed that with all my heart. And I know he believed that too.
Schaap- There are people dying every day almost on an hourly basis in this country because they can't get the organs that they need, organs that you could say should be available to them if people were donating. It's a tragedy.
C. Payton- Yes it is. Yes it is. But you know, I just have faith that people will continue to come forth. It's a little bit bigger process than just having the first available organ be available because in some cases, and not all cases, it's got to be a match, a perfect match actually. So...
Schaap- It's been about a year now for you without Walter. How tough has it been?
C. Payton- Oh, man. It's sometimes -- it's really strange because there are days I think, "Gosh, it's been a year." And then it seems like it's gone by fast. And in some ways, it seems like it's just dragged on. And there are parts of me that still refuse to believe that he's not here, that he's not coming back.
But the reality of the fact is that he is not. But it's hard. And we really do miss him. We miss him a lot, you know.
Schaap- These causes at least keep his memory alive.
C. Payton- Yes they do. And it helps. I know it helps me. And I think to a large degree too, our children get a lot of strength from knowing that their dad really was important to a lot of people, and that even with him not being here that he is continuing to really make a difference in the lives of other people.
And in some ways, you can get a little sad about it. But then you really have to stop and smile and really think of, wow, gosh, his life didn't just only mean something when he was here, it still means a lot. And a lot of people can't say that.
So the year has been long. But a lot of good has come. So I'm happy about that.
Schaap- When we return, the story of the U.S. Olympian who competed at the 1998 Winter Games in Japan while suffering from the same disease that killed Walter Payton. Following transplant surgery, he's now attempting a comeback.
Schaap- Several years ago, Chris Klug, one of the world's best snowboarders, was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosis Colingitis, or PSC, the liver disease that killed Walter Payton. Earlier this year, with Klug's health rapidly worsening, he moved to the top of the transplant list.
Finally in July, Klug received a new liver.
Chris Klug, Olympic snowboarder and liver transplant recipient- OK, the scar, it's a pretty good one. They opened me up pretty good. If it had another line here, I'd have a good peace sign out of it.
But yeah, it was pretty scary. After they did it, I woke up after the surgery. And I was feeling great. I had some good drugs. So I was flying high, a morphine high or something, and laughing.
And I looked down. And I was like, "Oh, my goodness, what in the world did they do?" I had staples in it and everything, and tubes coming out here and there. And I looked like some biology experiment or something. It was scary.
But it worked out. Three months later, I'm back in one piece and snowboarding and doing what I love to do. So it was a pretty small price to pay. A tattoo like that, I don't mind having.
Schaap- Even after he was initially diagnosed with liver disease, Chris Klug continued to feel healthy and suggested he might not be ill.
Klug- Oftentimes, it was very funny because I was like, "Well, are you sure you guys got the wrong guy? I'm totally asymptomatic. I feel like a million bucks. I'm out riding my snowboard 200 days a year and doing every other activity I love to do. And I feel perfect." And that's how my initial experience was with PSC was pretty much asymptomatic for about six years.
Schaap- But the illness took its toll, making it difficult for Klug to eat, maintain his weight, and train. Even though he competed in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, by that time he was regularly undergoing a procedure to dilate his bile ducts, which allowed his liver to function better.
Klug- And that seems to give me some temporary relief. And initially, they do that every year, every eight months. Then it sort of became a deal they do every six months.
Before you know it, I was getting ERCPs every two months, every month. And then finally this spring, April, May, I was on my way to a big surf trip, got really sick, and had to come back.
And they just said, "Hey, it's completely ineffective. It's time for a new liver. Yours is shutting down. The plumbing is no longer flowing." So it was time for a new engine.
Schaap- But with the acknowledgment of the need for that new engine came a realization of fear.
Klug- Wow, OK, finally the wait is over. But now I've got to go through a pretty scary procedure and might not make it out. So it's good the wait is over and I don't have to experience this getting worse every week and my health deteriorating every week.
Now we're finally going to end this. But it could not come out as I want it to come out. So I got very lucky.
Schaap- At the time, as Klug assessed his condition, one particular conversation provided reassurance.
Klug- One of the neatest things was I was able to speak with Sean Elliot (ph). We have a mutual friend that hooked us up and shared some of his experiences with me.
And that was really helpful, just really put me at ease. And obviously, he couldn't make any guarantees. His was a bit of a different surgery. He had a kidney transplant. I had a liver transplant.
But we're on the same drugs. And it was more so I wanted to know, "How are you going to bounce back from it? What's the effect of the drugs? And can I expect to return to the life as I know it?" And he assured me that, "Hey, the sky is the limit. And you're going to do great." And he was very optimistic.
And I suppose he could have been a bit more realistic. But he was so optimistic and so uplifting. And that was just what I needed to hear at the time. So I'll never forget that. That was really cool of him.
Schaap- Chris Klug not only survived his six-hour surgery this summer, he quickly returned to the slopes and his training regimen.
Klug- About two months after my surgery, I was back on snow and just eased into it. Free road, took it easy, didn't take too many chances that first week. And then the next week, I felt a little stronger.
And here we are a little longer than three months. And I'm stronger than ever, actually.
Schaap- Even as Klug carefully enters the next phase of his life and his snowboarding career, his familiarity with the disease that struck down Walter Payton has reinforced Payton in his mind as a lasting hero.
Klug- He was a real champion for the cause. And through his foundation and all his efforts, I think he's really helped organ donation a lot.
And I don't know if I'll ever reach that level of exposure with my message, but hopefully I can follow in his footsteps a little bit and try and do the same thing because he did do a lot of good. And he's out there saving a lot of lives today because of his efforts.
And hopefully I can persuade even one person to do it and save somebody's life. That would be a great thing.
Schaap- We'll be back with more on Outside The Lines, including letters on NASCAR and safety in a moment.
Schaap- The discussion on Outside The Lines last week on NASCAR and safety issues generated comments that reflected a wide range of opinions. One letter from Silver Spring, Maryland, said- "Sour grapes anyone? Though you mentioned the end of your 20-year relationship with NASCAR up front, where was this report before the network lost its TV deal with the series?
"Unfortunately in the course of men and women flying around race courses at speeds far above the norm, we occasionally lose one of these brave souls. But the same thing has happened in the other racing series, which have lost great drivers. And your tone to the folks at NASCAR played like a giant middle finger displayed as you walk out the door. This muddled your most relevant point about the need for the series to have a safety committee and traveling safety personnel."
Another viewer from Mendham, New Jersey, wrote- "Sunday's program on NASCAR safety was right on point, especially the comparisons of NASCAR's safety programs or lack thereof with CART and the Indy Racing League. I'm associated in business with one of the IRL team owners and have seen firsthand the level of engineering and technological sophistication present in an IRL car's safety systems.
"Comparing a NASCAR car with a CART or IRL car is like comparing a SCUD missile with the Space Shuttle. NASCAR should get past its fear of change and allow its drivers to benefit from the engineering expertise of IRL and CART."
Those e-mails were sent to us online at ESPN.com. To reach Outside The Lines, go the ESPN home page, type the keyword otlweekly, and you'll be able to browse the complete library of transcripts and video on demand from all the Sunday morning OTL programs. And you'll be able to send your opinions and suggestions. That e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schaap- If you missed any portion of our show, it will re-air on ESPN2 at 1-00 p.m. Eastern following "NFL Countdown" on ESPN. "SportsCenter" is back here in 30 minutes and "NFL Countdown" in 60 minutes.
Let's send it now to the ESPN Zone in Times Square. Dick Schaap and "The Sports Reporters."
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