Celebrating life: Transplant recipients recognized by Chris Klug Foundation | AspenTimes.com

Celebrating life: Transplant recipients recognized by Chris Klug Foundation

Valen Keefer believes she would have been an athlete had her body not had other plans. Although, she'll be the first on a snowboard this weekend if Aspen Olympian Chris Klug wants some company on the mountain.

"It takes a lot of the qualities of an athlete to be a patient, I believe," Keefer said. "If I didn't have all these medical issues and with my determination and drive to keep living, I think I would put that into being an athlete."

As it happened, Keefer didn't have much time for those kinds of adventures growing up. She was too busy fighting a polycystic kidney disease that was threatening her life. Keefer, from Auburn, California, was diagnosed with the disease when she was 10 and spent a year in the hospital in her late teens.

At 19, a family friend donated a kidney to Keefer, saving her life.

Now 34, Keefer has spent much of her post-transplant life helping others fight similar problems, part of the reason she was one of two people named a Bounce Back Give Back award recipient this weekend by the Chris Klug Foundation.

"It recognizes two post-transplant recipients that are leading a great quality of life. It shows you are not limited to a hospital bed anymore," said Lauren Pierce, the executive director for the Aspen-based Chris Klug Foundation. "Maybe not everybody will win an Olympic medal after you get a transplant, but even just going out and having a family and really leading a great, quality and inspiring life."

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Klug's story of receiving his own liver transplant before earning a bronze medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics is well known. He founded his namesake organization in 2003 and has held the Summit for Life uphill race on Aspen Mountain every year for the past 12 years now. This was the fourth year the organization handed out the Bounce Back Give Back award, going to Keefer and Wisconsin's Jim Brien.

Brien, 70, had a kidney transplant in 1982, when he was 35. His brother, Jerry, who also traveled to Aspen this weekend, was the one who donated the kidney.

"It's very humbling to be here and to be among some of the other ones that have received it the last couple of years," Brien said of the award. "Because I had a second chance on life, I'm also making good use of my second chance helping others."

Brien, who long worked in the fire control program for the state of Wisconsin before retiring, has spent much of his life giving back. Alongside programs like Habitat for Humanity, he actively promotes organ donation and talks to schools and civic groups. He's also made numerous trips to the southern states to help rebuild homes after they were destroyed by hurricanes. He hopes to go to Houston early next year to lend a hand.

Brien and Keefer were chosen out of roughly 80 original nominations from 28 states that were whittled down to about eight before being selected by the Chris Klug Foundation board. For Keefer, this was her first trip to Aspen, while Brien had been here one other time, back in the mid-1970s.

The Summit for Life race — won Saturday by Aspen's John Gaston — is primarily a fundraiser for the Chris Klug Foundation, which raises awareness about the importance of organ and tissue donation. After the race, a celebration was held at the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain with Keefer and Brien being the honored guests.

"To get this opportunity to be here this weekend is pretty awe-inspiring. It's neat how when you give back to others, what you get in return," Keefer said. "If it wasn't for organ donation, we wouldn't be here. We are all just celebrating life tonight."

acolbert@aspentimes.com

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