The gift of life: Longtime Aspen ski instructor needs kidney donor

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Andre Salvail The Aspen Times

Pepper Gomes, a longtime Aspen ski instructor, was all set to receive a much-needed kidney transplant from a living donor last week.

Unfortunately for Gomes, 69, the plan fell through because of a late-hour discovery by doctors that the surgery would put the donor, his daughter, in harm’s way. So now, he is back to square one.

And the clock is ticking. If he doesn’t find a living donor — one who meets the criteria for a kidney match — within an estimated 90 days, he will have to start dialysis treatments three or four times a week in Grand Junction, roughly a five-hour roundtrip drive from Aspen. Grand Junction has the closest dialysis facility, he said.

“We’re hoping somebody, somewhere, will want to donate a kidney,” Gomes said Thursday. “I don’t have much time left in the respect that I’ll have to go on dialysis soon.”

Humans only need one healthy kidney for normal living. Gomes discovered that both of his kidneys weren’t working properly in 1983 after he broke his shoulder while skiing.

“In the process of dealing with my shoulder, my doctor said there was something else going on,” he said. “He called another internist here in town, and they discovered there was a progressive failure in both kidneys.”

Gomes has an active lifestyle — in addition to being a ski instructor at Buttermilk Mountain, he also plays hockey. For that reason, a kidney from a live donor would be a better fit than one from a deceased person; the organ would last longer.

Also, there are logistical difficulties involved in getting from Aspen to the Denver hospital in time for surgery should a deceased person’s organ become available. And a whole other issue comes into play: the fact that there is a long waiting list for organs donated after someone dies.

MatchingDonors, a nonprofit group that helps those in need of organ transplants to find living donors, estimates that the average time to receive a “deceased organ is seven to 12 years.” Such connections are made nationally through a federal government database.

“An organ from a living donor has a better chance of lasting, 15 to 20 years or so,” Gomes said. “That’s why I’m looking for a living donor. Otherwise, the only dialysis facility is in Grand Junction. Driving five hours there, three or four days a week — I might as well just move there.”

Pepper’s wife, Susan, said there’s another reason for looking for a living donor.

“The kidney starts functioning immediately if it doesn’t get rejected,” she said. “And the length of time for the kidney is much longer than it would be coming from a deceased donor. If you don’t have to go through that again in your lifetime, that would be ideal.”

Pepper has been teaching skiing in Aspen for 43 years, starting out at Aspen Highlands and then spending the past 23 years at Buttermilk. His kidney degeneration has been slow for most of the past three decades, but it has gotten to the point at which he only has 12 percent function in his kidneys.

“I’ve been dropping off much more quickly in the last six months or so,” he said.

“That’s about as low as they can go, 12 percent. That’s when they want to do dialysis or a transplant,” Susan said. “From my observation, it’s only been two years that this has started to affect his lifestyle. He has less energy.”

Teaching skiing hasn’t been a problem, Pepper said.

“But I noticed while playing hockey, I was getting tired more easily,” he said.

He said he’s a private person and didn’t want to go public in his search for a living donor, but circumstances dictated a different approach.

For more information about being a donor candidate for Pepper Gomes, contact Kathryn O’Dea, donor coordinator for Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, at 720-754-2164 or send an email to


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