Well-known Aspen ski instructor Pepper Gomes says his new kidney is working well.
Gomes, 70 — a Buttermilk Mountain fixture for more than two decades and a local skiing teacher for 44 years overall — received a transplant in mid-July. He said the donor was not someone he previously knew.
“This guy got two days out of prison, gave me a kidney, then went back. They knocked a year off his sentence,” Gomes joked.
Kidding aside, Gomes is extremely grateful that a Roaring Fork Valley resident stepped forward in mid-April following an Aspen Times story and a YouTube video about his health-related plight. He said the donor wishes to remain anonymous.
Gomes experienced kidney degeneration for nearly three decades before going public in early April with his need for a new organ. At the time of the publicity, he had reached the point at which he only had 12 percent function in his kidneys, which meant he was on the verge of having to start dialysis.
Dialysis is not an easy prospect for Aspen-area residents. The nearest dialysis facility is at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
And time was running out: Gomes wasn’t anywhere near the top of any list to receive a deceased person’s kidney.
So, saying he wanted to continue to lead a regular lifestyle — in addition to being a ski instructor, Gomes is a hockey player and extremely active — he and his wife, Susan, asked the community for help.
The response to the article and video was great, but most callers to Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, the health care facility where the surgery would be performed, weren’t too promising in terms of being good candidates for a kidney donation.
“Between (the) article and the YouTube video, we started getting several calls to (hospital) transplant coordinator Kathryn O’Dea,” Gomes said.
After about two weeks, the right person called the hospital, was tested and was deemed a great candidate.
“It worked out pretty good,” Gomes said. “This community, to me, has always been that way. Whenever there’s a problem, people step up from every side of the valley, from Red Mountain to Carbondale. People think of the town as being so hoity-toity, but when something like this happens, it’s amazing who contacts you.”
In fitting with his personality, Gomes found humor in the situation.
“People would call and say, ‘I don’t know you, but I’ve heard about you. I’ve got a friend who has a kidney. I’ll volunteer his,’” Gomes recalled.
The surgery took place about one month ago. Gomes spent another few days in the hospital to recuperate before being discharged.
Speaking of discharge, Gomes said there was something he had to do before the hospital would release him.
“Once you can pass gas, you can go,” he said. “Everybody was sitting around that hospital at night waiting for me to pass gas. Finally (a few days after surgery), there’s this explosion, and then all the nurses cheer, ‘Yay! He’s going home!’”
Gomes is grateful not only to the person who gave him the working kidney but to everyone who called as a potential donor. He was highly complimentary of the staff at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I can’t say pleasant. But there was very little trauma or agony or whatever you want to call it.”
He added that his energy levels are returning to normal and he’ll be back at Buttermilk this winter. Asked if hockey is in his future, Gomes said he’s not sure.
The decision might not be up to him.
“My wife is shaking her head,” he said.