Force of will: Coralville man maintains positivity in face of health issues

Brian Kleis refuses to let life get him down

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Brian Kleis refuses to let life get him down.

That’s despite a host of health issues. The Coralville resident, 41, has had diabetes, organ failures and most recently underwent the amputation of his right foot after an infection.

But he decided years ago to stay positive, and at a recent conversation at the American Prosthetics and Orthotics office at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, he joked and showed off his prosthesis with glee.

The team at the office designed him a prosthetic leg with a Star Wars-patterned socket. An avid Star Wars enthusiast, Kleis said he likes displaying his fandom.

“I kind of said to myself, let’s make the most of it and enjoy it and make the most of a crummy situation,” he said.

For the socket, he wanted a pattern that expressed something about himself.

“My earliest three memories are visiting my great-grandmother, visiting my grandfather before he died, and seeing the Star Wars movies,” he said. “I wanted something that has really been a constant in my life.”

He got the leg in April and spent the summer wearing shorts to show it off. He already has tickets for the new Star Wars film, which will be released Dec. 18. He hasn’t decided if he’ll wear shorts for the showing or simply role up his jeans over the leg.

Eventually, when the muscles in his leg stop shrinking, he’ll get a new leg. For now, however, he’s enjoying the Star Wars look.

“When something like this happens you can dwell on it and think, ‘Woe is me.’ Or you can have fun with it, try to be positive,” he said.

He held an online contest for his friends, asking for the best story to tell strangers who asked about his leg. One person suggested he say he was injured in a transporter accident aboard the USS Enterprise — a Star Trek reference rather than a Star Wars one, but still his favorite response.

He’s also taken photos of his prosthetic leg having “adventures” on its own.

“The plot is, the leg does things without me, while I’m sleeping,” he said.

He’s posed it at the movies, on the bus, on a treadmill and trying on shoes at Target. His goal is not just to make himself laugh, but to help others see the light in a difficult situation. An online page for the Amputee Coalition of America is filled with posts from people struggling with their amputations, and he wants to help them in whatever way he can.

“If I can be a little bit strong for myself about this, maybe it can be a positive sign for anyone else who has gone through it,” he said.

It’s an attitude he’s worked hard to cultivate. When he was 14, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile-onset diabetes. In 2007, his kidneys failed, which meant he had to be on dialysis for two years.

“I wouldn’t leave the house. I was depressed,” he said.

In 2009, he was able to get a kidney and pancreas transplant at the same time. The new pancreas cured his diabetes, and he felt like he had a new lease on life.

However, the kidney started failing almost immediately, and he had to go back on dialysis. That was his lowest point, emotionally.

“I sat there thinking, again, ‘Woe is me,’” he said. “I had that whole awful attitude. But I was sitting there in dialysis one day, and the lady to the right of me was going through dialysis and chemotherapy at the same time. The lady to the left of me had to be lifted in and out of her chair with a sling. And I thought, what in the world have I got to complain about? I have it so much better than other people.”

He made a decision that day to live the best life he could, no matter what the universe threw at him.

Last year he got a second kidney transplant. That kidney still is going strong, but the pancreas has since failed, which means his diabetes is back. However, Kleis said he’d much rather deal with insulin shots than dialysis.

His medical trials didn’t end there. During his two week stay in the hospital, he got a small cut on the side of his right foot. He didn’t think much of it, until he returned home and noticed it hadn’t healed. A few days later, the whole area had turned gray. Doctors removed his two smallest toes.

The wound was healing, but X-rays at a follow-up appointment showed a problem — the infection had spread into the bones of his feet.

He and his doctors decided to amputate his lower leg to keep the infection from spreading further.

Still, Kleis maintained his positive attitude. He said the new leg is actually a blessing of sorts.

For years he had problems with his ankles that made walking uncomfortable, and for a time he was using a walker. His prosthetic leg is actually easier to walk on, he said.

“I walked twice the distance on my new leg than I ever had before,” he said.

He hasn’t had a car in years — he lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for a long time, where he didn’t need one. He’s always relied on walking, buses and biking. That’s what he’s hoping to take on next — learning to bike with a prosthesis.

“I have the ability to choose to overcome what’s wrong in my life. Not everybody gets that choice,” he said. “Otherwise you sit and cry, and I’m tired of that.”

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