Tag Archives: liver transplant

What Avalanches Can Tell Me About My Own Weakness

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How I Try to Pretend

Five Foot Crown in Bear Pits, March 2011

Weak layers in the snowpack are like fragile layers in our psyche. We can cover over them with slabs of bravado, carefully sintered together and work-hardened. We can pretend they don’t exist, or that subsequent snow has masked the flaw. As a diabetic and a rescuer, I prefer to bridge over my tendency towards low blood sugar reactions and pretend I’m in control.

Just like in the snowpack, weakness lingers. In fact, given the right conditions, cold temperatures and a shallow snowpack, those frailties grow even weaker. Sometimes ignoring those unsightly parts of myself makes them scarier foes, and yet I can’t resist. Who wants to stare her own ugliness down? When I have a low blood sugar reaction I hate to ask for help. It’s a weakness I try to bury. And yet its a ridiculous strategy.

A Ridiculous Strategy

Anna D. tossing a shot onto the slope, Southback Crystal Mt.

This morning I woke at 4 am. Hot sweat pooled in my clavicle and I threw off the sheets. “I’m having a low blood sugar,” I told John as I careened down the hallway toward the kitchen. I stood there naked and sweating and tried to prick my finger and smear the drop of red blood onto the tiny strip. When my brain is starving, it seems to shut off the less important functions like eyesight. I stared at my glucometer and tried to see the number blinking on the screen. It was either 64 or 34, either way a low blood sugar. I lifted my hair off my shoulders and let the sweat cool my skin.

John handed me a glass of orange juice and told me to drink. It was sweet and delicious. Diabetics can’t normally drink juice; it contains far too much sugar. I miss drinking orange juice. I wondered for a moment if drinking juice made the threat of a seizure worth it. I ran my tongue along the slick above my lip, leaned over the counter and rested my face in my hands. I was very tired and starting to get cold.

John helped me back to bed, where I buried myself in the damp sheets. My blood sugar was returning to normal and I shivered. John kept waking up thinking my shaking was the start of a seizure. I told him not to worry; I’d be fine.

Buried Facets

What used to be a forest now lays on the ground just uphill from my house

Just a few feet from my window, century-old trees lay in a jumbled mess. Last season a huge avalanche slid nearly from the top of the mountain and stopped within feet of our apartment. The aftermath of that slide was humbling. Trees and rocks were uprooted, or snapped in half and sent a mile down the slope, to rest just uphill from where I now lay shivering and clutching the sheets against my weakness.

While pretty on the surface, once buried facetted crystal become a dangerous weak layer

When the slide let loose, having been triggered by explosives thrown from a helicopter, the slab failed on an old weak layer. Months before, a rain event followed by cold temperatures had left faceted crystals that later were buried by late-season snow. When the stress of the new snow overcame the strength of the snowpack, huge slides let loose all over the mountain, running on that layer of beautiful, diamond-like crystals that wouldn’t bond.

I couldn’t control my shivering. The wet sheets provided little warmth, and the clock blinked 4:35 am. Between the tree tops outside the window the sky grew lighter. These very trees acted as the last defense against the tons of snow and debris that had nearly buried the bed I now lay in and the window I looked through. Faceted crystals will not bond to anything, will not ask for help from nearby slabs. Buried surface hoar harbors air pockets that create a growing weakness, nibbling away at its surroundings until a layer of crystalline dominoes is poised and ready to fail. The symmetry was almost too much to bear.

With a Little Help From Our Friends

When I look over the past few years of our lives, so many things had to go right. John lived through an impossible diagnosis. The cancer didn’t spread. He got the transplant. We weren’t in our apartment when the avalanche came down. We didn’t get buried.

During a recent interview a radio personality asked me what I’d learned since writing my book. I answered quickly. I knew this one.

My happy place: skiing powder with my husband

I have learned to be grateful. If we didn’t have buried weakness, gratitude wouldn’t come quite as easily. If John hadn’t nearly died we wouldn’t be living so large right now. If I didn’t have diabetes, I might forget to be humble in the face of risk, both on and off the mountain.

Weakness reminds us of our humanity. If we were perfect we wouldn’t need each other. John’s ordeal sintered our marriage, bonding the very crystals of our being together into a cohesive slab.

I looked at the clock again, it was almost 5 am, time to wake up and check the weather forecast. John and I looked at it together this morning, mapping the timing of the storms lining up in the Pacific, strategizing about how to get the mountain open.

If the forecast pans out, we could be open by early next week. Our lives are about to shift again–this time towards the yearly start to our ski season. I look forward to skiing again, feeling gratitude and joy and weakness.

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Summit For Life: Raising funds for tissue and organ donation

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The Summit for Life is a weekend celebration of donor awareness activities in Aspen, Colorado centered around a nighttime uphill race benefiting the Chris Klug Foundation. The 6th Annual Summit for Life event goes off in Aspen December 9th and 10th, and I couldn’t be more excited. Combine a rando rally with the chance to save lives through organ donation, and you have two of the most precious aspects of my life combined in one awesome event. As a racer and participant, I’m trying to raise $500. Help me raise funds by clicking on my fundraising page.

Founded in 2003 by liver transplant recipient and Olympic Medalist snowboarder Chris Klug, the Chris Klug Foundation is dedicated to promoting lifesaving donation and improving the quality of life for donors, donor families, organ transplant candidates and recipients.

It’s a great cause and a great opportunity to save lives while participating in an awesome event. Anyone interesting in racing or attending any of the other awesome weekend events, check out the Summit for Life website. High-five!

Here’s the video from last year’s event. Doesn’t this look cool? I can’t wait.

The Check Up

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Just the way I like him

Earlier this week John and I returned to Mayo Clinic for his yearly post-transplant check-up. This is the week every year when we both take a long look at where we’ve been. It all comes roaring back. As we walked quickly through the Mayo campus, jogging across the plaza, running up stairs instead of waiting for the elevator, John and I felt the change.

We stood at the crosswalk, waiting for a break in the traffic. We didn’t have to wait for the walk signal. Not this time. John looked at me and smiled. I knew what he was thinking. Four years ago we’d stood right here. We’d walked this same campus, gingerly taking steps across the street, hoping the walk signal would wait for his slow gait. Back then he couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be well. He’d see a guy, maybe his own age, maybe younger, jog across the street, his suit jacket flying open as he ran to his appointment, and John would shake his head.

He didn’t think he’d ever be able to walk quickly again. He thought he’d be sick forever, just one step from a hospital bed, waiting fifteen minutes to hit the pain button again.

One afternoon this week, John and I found a few hours in between appointments and decided to go for a run. “Where can we go?” He asked.

“How about the trail?”

“What trail?”

John didn’t know about the paved trail that bisected the town and ran along the river. We set out from the hotel and waited at a stop light and jogged in place. When we crossed I turned left and he continued straight. “Where are you going?” He asked.

I sighed. “To the trail. It’s this way.”

He turned toward me. “How am I supposed to know that?”

He had a point.

While he’d been sick in the hospital those first two months, I’d run these trails alone. I knew, for instance, that about twenty minutes from downtown we’d come to Soldiers Field, where we’d watched the fireworks display on the 4th of July that first night we’d arrived. His appointments started in the morning, and while his skin had already turned yellow, the disease hadn’t really caught up with him yet. It was our last night of near-normalcy before the ordeal started.

Now, as we ran together on the trail, I realized that for John this view was entirely new. He had never seen the geese and ducks floating here on the river, opening their wings to the warm wind. He’d never sailed over this iron bridge, heard the sound of baseballs cracking in that field, watched the soccer girls run laps on this green lawn.

He’d never calculated the distance and turned back at the exact spot where we’d watched in the dark as our life together exploded in colorful fireworks above us, the long streamers turning from red to blue to silver before they faded.

Now John says he can’t remember what it feels to be sick. He cannot conjure up the feeling of small steps, the pain that sat on his right side, the doctor’s words that it was cancer.

And I’m glad. I hope he forgets those things, becoming the man who runs across the street just before the walk signal changes.

Now we run along the trail together, and I can barely keep up with him. And that’s just the way I like it.

Donor Dudes: Promoting organ donation awareness

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Chris Klug and John Kircher, both post-transplant

Chris Klug, Olympic snowboard medalist, wants to increase organ donation awareness. Like John, Chris was diagnosed with Primary Schlerosing Cholangitis and told he would need a liver transplant someday. Not only did Chris receive the surgery, he also went on to win a a bronze medal in Salt Lake just eighteen months later. I’ve written about Chris before, but I wanted to let you all know a little more about him and an upcoming event for donor awareness.

John and I had the chance to meet Chris at the Vancouver Olympics, and he’s a truly amazing guy. I’m currently planning my upcoming book tour, and one stop will be in Aspen in December so that I can join Chris in his Summit for Life event. His mission is to raise awareness for organ donation through this uphill skiing race/fun run. I’m looking forward to joining Chris and his Donor Dudes in December. The event starts at the base of Aspen Mountain. Participants ski, snowshoe or can even take the gondola to the top of the Sundeck at the summit. Last year, 400 people participated.

Donor Dudes are like ambassadors, spreading the message of organ donation to young people. Through his charisma and positive attitude, Chris works to recruit the “dudes” to help spread the message. I love this part of Chris’s foundation. Not only is he getting the word out, he’s also offering a road map to young people showcasing how to make a difference.

Anyone up for a fun, athletic event that will contribute to saving lives and furthering Chris’s awesome message should join me in December. Check out Chris’s website for registration information.

Liver Day: An anniversary of gratitude

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Friday was Liver Day at our house. Exactly three years ago John

Liver Donor Hero, Whitney Meriwether

received his liver transplant. Approximately one-half of Whitney’s, the living donor’s, liver was surgically removed and placed in John’s abdomen. I remember the day at the Mayo Clinic in the waiting room, imagining the surgeons meticulously slicing and tying, opening and sealing back up. I visualized all the cancer,

Whitney and John, post transplant

including John’s bile ducts, getting thrown in the garbage bin beside the operating table.

I would like to say that in the three years since John’s transplant, we’ve lived every day as well as we possibly could. While that’s not exactly true, it’s pretty close. We have made a ritual of gratitude, voicing all the tiny and grand things that we are grateful for every day. Spontaneity has ruled around here.

Skydiving

We’ve learned to surf, we’ve jumped out of an airplane, we’ve traveled to Bhutan and Costa

John checking the depth

Rica, we’ve logged in some serious powder turns.

Going forward I want to keep this momentum going. Life is precious. This miniscule little flame we are given must be tended and appreciated. It’s brief, but brilliant, and I hope we don’t miss any of it. I hope the angel of gratitude always sits at our table.

It’s easy to rack up transcendent moments, if you simply look around and appreciate them.

What about you? What are you grateful for today?

Chris Klug: Donor Hero

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In 1991 Olympic snowboard medalist Chris Klug was diagnosed with primary schlerosing cholangitis (the same diagnosis my husband received), and nine years later, like John, Chris needed a liver transplant. When John first received the news, he mentally calculated the time the surgery would take out of his life.  His first question was, “When can I ski again?” 

I had just read Chris’s book, To the Edge and Back, about Chris’s battle with PSC, his liver transplant and his subsequent rise in snowboard racing.   When I told John that Chris was back on his snowboard is less than two months, John smiled. 

“Not bad,” he said. “I can do that too.”

 Last winter, John and I met Chris at the 2010 Olympics.  Cypress, a ski area in our company, hosted the snowboard and freestyle events. At a pre-race event John and Chris exchanged stories and compared scars (think a mercedes logo or an upside Y that covers the entire abdomen). 

The two most remarkable things about Chris are his attitude and his compassion.  He truly cares about other people, and that’s why he started the Chris Klug Foundation to spread the message about organ and tissue donation, with hopes of “promoting lifesaving donation and improving the quality of life for donors, donor families, organ transplant candidates and recipients.”  Not for himself (he already got his transplant), but for the more than one hundred thousand people waiting for life-saving organ transplants.  

Chris has dedicated his life to donor awareness, signing up countless people for organ and tissue donation. He travels across the country bringing his message to his “donor dudes”.  Chris is a true hero.  Check him out at www.chrisklugfoundation.org.  His work is inspiring.

Hello world!

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I figured that I might as well get on the blog bandwagon, so here goes.  This blog is dedicated (for now, who knows how these things evolve!) to showcasing my husband’s success over a rare liver disease and the cancer that snaked its way into our lives.  John needed a liver transplant, but the cancer meant that he couldn’t get one.  Except, that is, for patients at Mayo Clinic.  Thanks to the awesome doctors and surgeons at Mayo, he just celebrated his second post-transplant anniversary cancer-free.  We have always been adventurers, spending our lives in the mountains, oceans and sky.  When he got sick, it was the lessons I learned in the world’s remote and treachorous places that helped me get through the darkest moments of the journey, most importantly to calm down and breathe.  My memoir, THE NEXT FIFTEEN MINUTES, takes the reader through the year of his diagnosis, where I searched for salvation in the oddest places.  See the link to the first few chapters of the memoir, which is awaiting publication.  Also, leave comments and let me know how you have learned to cope with life’s turning points, both large and small.