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Chasing After an Answer

Chase Harrison is a local resident of Aspen, Colorado, where the Chris Klug Foundation is based. CKF Program Manager, CC Cunningham, sat down with Chase last month to interview him for this story.

I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. My family would take trips out to Colorado to ski when I was a kid and I completely fell in love with it: Colorado and skiing. I’ll never forget telling my dad as we drove back from Steamboat Springs to Denver, “I’m going to live here someday.” I’ve also been an “adventure athlete” ever since high school. My first love was the outdoors: I was a Boy Scout and used to attend summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina for over 12 years. That’s how I was introduced to backpacking, rock-climbing…all those outdoor adventure activities. I graduated from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1981 and that’s what really got me motivated to move to Colorado, besides the lifestyle. I spent almost four months at the school and, as soon as I graduated, I moved to Winter Park, Colorado. I visited Aspen while I was living there and immediately fell in love with the place. My decision was made: after just one winter, I packed up my crappy car, moved to Aspen, and the rest is pretty much history.

After making the move to Aspen, I became a river guide for quite a while. I also guided mountain bike trips. I’ve basically been a guide for every kind of outdoor adventure sport there is. I was also a volunteer firefighter with the Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Department for over 12 years. The rest of my family still lives in Atlanta.

About six years ago, I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. That’s when all this stuff with my kidneys started. Then, things really took a turn last spring when I took a month-long trip down to Ecuador. During my trip, I traveled to the Galapagos Islands for ten days. The whole experience was great—I don’t have any regrets doing it. However, once I returned home, I began to feel really, really sick. I couldn’t stop throwing up. It’s one of those things where you keep saying to yourself, “It’s going to get better, it’s going to get better,” but it wasn’t. Right around Memorial Day, my parents called and my esophagus was so torn up from the vomiting that I could barely talk. I knew then that something was seriously wrong. My father is a retired physician and, when I told him how long I’d been vomiting, he told me to get my butt to the emergency room as soon as possible.

As soon as I got to the ER, the doctors immediately told me I was super dehydrated—I mean, I looked like a prune. I had dropped more than 35 pounds since I’d been back and it was critical. That’s when they told me my kidneys were shutting down. More than likely, I’d picked up some kind of E. coli infection on my trip that was further exacerbated by the diabetes. Since the hospital in Aspen doesn’t have a kidney specialist—a nephrologist—on staff, they packaged me up and sent me to the closest one that does: St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, about two and a half hours away. I ended up being at St. Mary’s for over two weeks. Before they sent me home, they told me they wanted to keep a close eye on my kidneys, so I’d have to come back regularly for testing. It was only my second visit to St. Mary’s when they informed me that I needed a kidney transplant. Although my creatinine and other levels aren’t great, they’re stable for the time being but, sooner or later, my kidneys are going to go.

Since then, I’ve been going to UCHealth in Denver to be set up with a transplant coordinator and undergo a battery of tests to determine my status on the transplant waitlist. It didn’t take me long to learn what the actual timeframe was for a person on the waitlist—you could be on there for years. I also learned, however, that if you have a living donor, it speeds up the process immensely and you can receive your transplant in a much shorter amount of time. Also, with living-donor transplants, the possibility of having any complications post-transplant is much lower. So now, that’s my goal: finding a living donor.

I’ve been handling it all pretty well for the most part. I think dialysis scares me more than actually going through transplant. The news of needing a transplant really hit me hard at first. The one thing that brightened my spirits was the nurse practitioner at St. Mary’s telling me, “Chase, when you get your new kidney, you will not believe how good you feel.” That really helped to hear him say that.

When I talked to my family about it, they just said, “Okay, this is what you need to do, so let’s do it. We’re in this together.” They didn’t panic or freak out at all. That’s mostly because they’ve gone through it already with my youngest brother. He was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a disease that affects the body’s connective tissue. Let me tell you, he has been through the absolute ringer: he’s torn three arteries in his neck, he’s blind because of retinal detachments in both eyes, his aorta has ruptured twice—I mean, his body is just riddled with problems and his immune system is completely shot. I’ve watched him go through it for as long as I can remember and he has always been an incredible inspiration to me. Despite everything, he has fought so hard to try and live a normal life: he has a beautiful daughter who’s a freshman in college, an incredible wife…most people with EDS only live till about 30 years old—and he’s 55! His fight and knowing what he’s been through has really kept me grounded and optimistic about my own situation.

I’ve definitely had bouts of uncertainty here and there, but I’m just taking it one day at a time. I have a wonderful support group, which helps a lot. My family is incredibly close and I’m so blessed to have them to fall back on. They’ll always have my back, no matter what—that’s the way I was raised. It’s the same way with my friends. On top of the love and support of my family and friends, I attribute a lot of my optimism and positivity to my faith. I’m a big believer in prayer. I believe you just have to leave it up to the big guy upstairs and trust that things will work out.

In the meantime, I’m just doing what I normally do: I’m still riding my bike and doing the things I enjoy, the things that I’m passionate about and will always be passionate about. I’ve been an adventure athlete all my life and now I’m an adventure athlete whose kidneys are failing. I can’t go to the athletic extremes I used to (and I really have to focus on staying hydrated), but if this is God’s way of saying, “Hey, you need to slow down a little bit,” then I know it’s what I need to do. In the grand scheme of things, there will always be longer races to complete and higher peaks to climb. For right now, the peak that’s in front of me is finding a living donor and getting a kidney transplant—and it’s a peak I’ve never been more ready to summit.

If you or someone you know would like to learn more about Chase’s search or about living donation in general, please email us at info@chrisklugfoundation.org.

Original interview on June 21, 2020. Transcribed, edited, and rewritten by CC Cunningham, Program Manager.

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