Swimming past liver disease


As the smell of chlorine filled the air around him, Bill Klahn took one large deep breath and didn’t stop until his fingertips were engulfed in the swimming-pool water.

At Stoney Point YMCA in Cedar Rapids, Klahn — sporting a Hawkeye swim cap and tinted goggles — swam to a slow cadence, breathing in with each stroke of his arm.

The 60-year-old was doing what he has done all of his life, swim.

Nine years ago, Klahn received a transplant after being diagnosed with hepatitis C and terminal liver cancer.

Klahn has competed in swimming for the Transplant Games of America and the World Transplant Games since he got his new liver. This weekend, Klahn will be in Houston to compete in his fifth Transplant Games of America.

Klahn, who is an Iowa state champion and regional champion, has not only traveled throughout the country, he has competed across the globe.

From South Africa to Switzerland to Australia, Klahn has competed in three World Transplant Games. He will continue his adventure next year with the 20th World Transplant Games in Argentina.

Last year, Klahn won three gold medals and two bronze medals at the 19th World Transplant Games in South Africa.

“It’s a celebration of life, and everybody there has had a lifesaving organ transplant,” he said. “It’s just a big happy celebration. Everybody is happy — lots of hugs, lots of crying, and lots of emotions.”

But this year, Klahn will be doing something he has never done before: He will compete in every swim competition of the Transplant Games.

The challenge came after he received good news this past year.

Only a couple of years after his transplant, hepatitis C started attacking Klahn’s liver again. He tried several traditional drugs, but Klahn said he was “treatment naïve” — or the older drugs did not work on him.

This past December, Klahn started a new treatment — Sovaldi — which was a two-month care.

Klahn said since the new drug, he has been hepatitis C free for two months.

Michael Voigt, a University of Iowa clinical professor of gastroenterology and hepatology, said that with the first traditional treatments, as few as 50 percent of patients would be cured of hepatitis C, but with new drugs, that number has increased to close to 100 percent.

“Half of all people who have hepatitis C are not aware of it; the people who aren’t aware of it are at risk,” Voigt said. “There are people walking around with it, and are unaware of it, and they really should be checking it.”

In all cases of hepatitis C, more than 75 percent of them are from people born from 1945-1965 — or around 8 to 10 in 100 baby boomers may carry the virus.

 Treatment for hepatitis C could cost more than $100,000.

 Many who have hepatitis C and have a liver transplant may last up to 20 more years before being affected by the disease, but there are some people where liver disease destroys their new liver sometimes in less than one year or even up to five years after the initial transplant.

However, in the past several years, newer treatments have been produced to help cure hepatitis C.

“If [liver disease] did come back, now we have a backup drug in case the hepatitis C comes back very quickly,” said Thomas Collins, a UI clinical associate professor of transplant and hepatobiliary surgery and surgical director of liver transplant at the UI Organ Transplant Center.

Despite it all, Klahn said he is grateful he has had a third chance of life.

“You know, transplant recipients get a second chance of life; well, I just was cured of hepatitis C, so I guess I got a third chance,” Klahn said.

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