Aspen resident to compete in World Transplant Games
August 20, 2009
ASPEN – The scar on his torso, one shaped like a Mercedes Benz emblem, is a constant reminder of Michael Wells’ unsavory past.
It is also a reminder of his good fortune.
Less than 10 years ago, the 58-year-old Aspen resident was wondering if he would get his call. Stricken with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, Wells was in rapidly declining health. A transplant was the only thing that could save his life, doctors said.
“I might have had anywhere from one to 10 years [to live],” Wells said Tuesday. “At the time this was all happening, I could tell things were not going well.
“Now, I can live without fear, or worrying about dying.”
Wells received that call – and a new lease on life. He’s taking full advantage.
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He recently applied for his first passport. And earlier this week, he took a trip across the world.
Wells is slated to compete in the 20 km. bike race and 5 km. time trial at the World Transplant Games, which begin Saturday on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“If I never got the transplant, I probably never would have gone to Australia,” he said. “It’s kind of weird … but it’ll be a great experience.
“I’m just happy to be alive.”
Wells was living in Bellingham, Wash., 80 miles north of Seattle, when, in 1994, he mysteriously gained about 55 pounds of water weight in little more than a month.
“I was a walking water balloon,” he recalled.
Wells later learned he had hepatitis C and cirrhosis, which resulted in incurable end-stage liver disease.
Wells determined he had been infected with hepatitis, which causes scarring of the liver and is spread by blood-to-blood contact, when he was a teenager growing up in Colorado Springs. In subsequent years, the infection was exacerbated by his drinking.
“I did some stuff with friends, some needle stuff,” Wells said. “It was just an eight- or nine-time thing. After that month, I realized it was a pretty stupid thing to do and I never did it again.
“At that time we didn’t know. It was 1967 or ’68 and no one had heard about this.”
After following suggested medical protocols for a few years, Wells’ doctor sent his records to the University of Washington in January 1998 to see if he would be a candidate for any hepatitis studies or treatments.
He was told a transplant was his only option. Wells was put on the waiting list in October.
One year later, his health took a turn for the worse.
“I was driving to the store one day and I felt like I was drunk – I hadn’t had a drink at all at the time,” he remembered. “I was weaving all over the road, and I said, ‘What’s the matter with me?’ I went home and called my doctor, and he told me to come down and get more tests.”
Soon after, Wells went from transplant list 3B, the longest wait, to list 1, he said. His life-saving call came Dec. 2, 1999.
That week, Wells was twice called to be a backup patient in case things went wrong with the original recipient. On one such occasion, he returned home after an eight-hour wait in the UW Medical Center waiting room to find the phone ringing.
“My first thought was, ‘Why are sales people calling me at 11 at night?'” Wells said. “The transplant center said they had a liver for me.
“I jumped in the shower, washed my face and called my brother and told him, ‘Be at the hospital at 6:30 p.m. They’re going to put me under.'”
He was on the operating table for 13 hours, and in the hospital for 26 days. Doctors would later tell him he received the liver of a 19-year-old man, who was most likely killed in a car accident.
“I was just happy to wake up. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m back alive,'” Wells said.
“They told me I had a good heart, so take care of it. I have.”
An active outdoor enthusiast before the operation who enjoyed hiking and biking, Wells took things slow for the first few years.
Upon moving to Aspen six years ago, a decision prompted by a desire to return to Colorado and to be close to a brother who lives in the area, Wells got back in the saddle and joined a gym.
“I was thinking about other things I could do physically, and thought that if I was working out I might as well have a goal,” Wells said. “I’m no elite athlete or anything.”
He started riding to work at Ace Hardware from his home in Aspen Village. He started signing up for local races in an attempt to raise awareness about organ donation. He participated in the first Summit for Life in 2006 – “I finished dead last two years in a row,” he joked – and has taken part in the annual uphill race on Aspen Mountain, which was created by Olympic bronze medalist and fellow liver transplant recipient Chris Klug, ever since.
In Aug. 2008, he took part in the U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh. He rode in the 20 km. bike race.
“It’s interesting being around a couple thousand people who are happy to be alive,” Wells said. “It’s hard to explain in words sometimes how it feels, but it’s a good thing.”
This year, with the support of the Chris Klug Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming plus Ute Mountaineer owner Bob Wade and his wife Ruth, Wells will represent the U.S. at the world games, which take place every two years.
His goals are modest: To finish the 20 km. ride in less than 45 minutes and the 3.1-mile time trial in about 12.
“If I actually get a podium finish in my age group, that would be totally amazing,” Wells said. “We’ll see how it goes. I’m in so-so shape, not the best shape.”
Podium finishes will not define Wells’ first trip to Australia. After years spent living with uncertainty, he said he is content to live freely and without reservation.
What a gift.
“After a while you get used to it and get back to your normal life. Then there are moments when you look at something as say, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t have seen that,'” Wells said. “I’m not anyone famous. I’m just someone doing what they want to do.
“I’m lucky to be alive.”