This past December, Elliott Larson spent a wintry evening in a less-than-conventional pursuit. Rather than partaking in the usual seasonal favorites, like relaxing before a roaring fire or throwing back holiday libations, Larson gathered with a couple hundred other people in the dark at the base of Aspen Mountain, then climbed – raced, actually – 3,267 feet to the summit.
Toiling uphill on skis as quickly as possible, in thin, frigid air and gloom punctuated only by globes of light from headlamps might not be many people’s idea of fun. But Larson, a direct-care nurse in University of Colorado Hospital’s Medicine Specialties Unit, is drawn back to the mountain year after year by a love of the outdoors, competition and a higher calling.
He climbs to support “Summit for Life,” an annual fundraiser for the Chris Klug Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting awareness of the importance of organ and tissue donation and helping transplant patients improve their quality of life. The event celebrated its 10th anniversary Dec. 4 and 5; Larson has participated in eight of them. Participants pay an entry fee and commit to raising at least $100. Larson raised $350, and convinced co-worker Jordan Buchanan, an advanced care partner on the Medicine Specialties Unit, to join the event with him in the competitive category.
“I pegged him as an athlete,” Larson said, “and he’s someone who shows passion when caring for patients experiencing organ failure.” Buchanan not only completed the two-and-a-half-mile ascent in waterproof trail running shoes, he managed to beat Larson to the top. Larson’s girlfriend also made the climb in the recreational category.
Larson freely admits that Summit for Life appeals to his competitive nature. But his links to the event are also personal. He lived in Aspen for nine years, working with the Ski Patrol in the Aspen Highlands Ski Area for five of them. In 2005, he met and became friends with Klug, an Aspen-based competitive skier diagnosed at age 19 with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a condition that causes severe liver scarring.
Klug underwent a liver transplant at UCH in 2000; he not only survived but went on to earn a bronze medal in the parallel giant slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
His example showed Larson the transformative power of transplant. Today, Klug, 43, is a husband and father of two who continues to ski and race bikes, works in real estate, and advocates strongly for organ donation. “He’s a nice, genuine guy who does cool things,” Larson said.
Now in his third year at UCH, Larson sees the need for organ donation regularly during his shifts on the Medicine Specialties Unit, which cares for a large number of medically complex patients.
“A big part of our job here is taking care of patients who are suffering from liver failure,” he said. “They are hoping for a transplant, but the major barrier is that there are not enough organs.”
The shortage sometimes leads to an agonizing dilemma, Larson added. Patients move up on the organ waiting list as they become sicker, but those who become too ill are considered too great a risk for a transplant.
It’s a complex problem, but the fix is straightforward, in Larson’s view. “Where are the organs?” he said. “We need more.”
The Summit for Life event and the work of the Chris Klug Foundation are vital, he added, because they help people understand “what it means to be a donor and to not be afraid of it.” He said he encourages his friends and families to learn more about donation and transplant and helps to spread the word by traveling to awareness-raising events and handing out educational materials.
Off the mountain, into nursing
The challenge of shortening the waiting list for transplant organs is daunting, but it’s suited for a guy who seems built for the long haul. Larson earned a second-place finish in the Summit for Life one year when a couple of feet of recently fallen snow in Aspen made progress up the mountain difficult. Another year he was underdressed when temperatures plunged.
“I barely made it to the top,” he recalled. “I was hypothermic and running out of energy.”
Nor did he follow the easiest path to the nursing profession. He was in his late 30s when he took extra first-aid classes with the Ski Patrol, thinking he might become an emergency medical technician. After an instructor encouraged him to come back and help teach the classes, Larson looked into additional training at Colorado Mountain College and took courses in anatomy and physiology. People he spoke to advised him that nursing would be a better career choice for him than becoming a paramedic.
He applied to the CU College of Nursing, but wasn’t accepted immediately. He was back on the slopes with the Ski Patrol when he unexpectedly received a phone call saying a spot had opened up for nursing school. Could he start in a week? He was worried about leaving his Ski Patrol colleagues in the lurch, but they quickly set that aside. You need to get down there for school, they told him.
The toil to the top of Aspen Mountain brings him back to his roots. And he draws further inspiration from the example of a close friend whose teenage son died in a traumatic accident. The young man was an organ donor, softening, at least partially, the pain of his father’s loss.
“His life was made a little better by his son’s sacrifice, which improved and saved the lives of a lot of people,” Larson said. “That makes a difference to me emotionally.”