Not everybody would choose to undergo invasive surgery and voluntarily give up part of a healthy organ to help someone. But Chris Vargas did exactly that.
A former college and pro quarterback, Vargas donated a lobe of his left lung to his brother-in-law, Scott Haggard, who had cystic fibrosis.
This past June, Vargas, a broker at Dain Rauscher in Reno, Nev., flew to Los Angeles, checked into USC University Hospital, had a portion of his lung removed and was back on the job two weeks later.
"It was a no-brainer," says Vargas of his decision to donate an organ. "Obviously, it needed to be done. He needed my help. I knew I was not in the same shape I was when I played football, but I don't know how you could not help someone like that."
Haggard is the brother of Vargas' wife, Katie.
Vargas grew up in Woodland, Calif., outside Sacramento. He played high school football and was recruited by the University of Nevada at Reno (UNR). He met Katie, a volleyball player, while both were students at UNR. They were married in 1995.
Vargas set school records for passing yardage (4,265) and touchdowns (34) in a season playing for the Wolf Pack in 1993. He also played five years for Canadian Football League teams in Edmonton, British Columbia and Winnipeg. He retired from football and began working at Dain Rauscher in September 1998.
Vargas knew his brother-in-law was ill and always had problems breathing.
"We knew he was sick, and he just told us, `Some day soon, I'm going to need a transplant,'" Vargas recalls. "No one asked me."
For a transplant to be possible, the donor and the recipient must be of the same sex and the donor must be three to four inches taller than the recipient, Vargas says.
Vargas, 29, is 6-foot-1, while Haggard, 39, is 5-foot-7. Fortunately, Vargas was an ideal match. Another friend of Haggard's donated a portion of his right lung for a dual transplant.
At press time two months after the transplant, all three men were well on the road to recovery. The next 10 months will be crucial to Haggard's long-term recovery. He must take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life.
Other than having a scar on his back where surgeons removed the lobe, Vargas' only post-operative symptom is a shortness of breath, but he is gaining lung capacity and strength quickly.
"I'm 90% back," he says. "I notice that I tire more easily after I exercise, but I'm getting my wind back. I finished a round of golf seven weeks after the operation and had no problems."
Vargas felt confident even before the procedure. "I met several donors before my operation," he says. "The doctors reassured me there would be some pain, but had no reason to doubt that I would have a full recovery."
The Vargas-to-Haggard lung transplant was the 100th operation of its type performed at USC. Vargas says, "198 people [counting donors and recipients] had this surgery at this hospital, and the doctors reported no complications."
Vargas and Haggard are anticipating that number will soon become 200.