Helicopter ambulance nurse who was burned in crash starts new life with kidney transplant
Flight nurse Dave Repsher was on a Flight for Life helicopter that crashed on July 3, 2015 and caught fire
By John Meyer
The Denver Post
COPPER MOUNTAIN -- Dave Repsher and Matt Martinez occasionally crossed paths in the years they worked as volunteers at Copper Mountain -- Repsher with the ski patrol and Martinez with the mountain safety patrol. But they were just vaguely familiar faces on the ski hill.
Now, Repsher and his wife, Amanda, consider Martinez family, because on Aug. 15, he gave Repsher one of his kidneys.
Repsher, a flight nurse, was on a Flight for Life helicopter that crashed in Frisco on July 3, 2015, and caught fire. Pilot Patrick Mahany was killed. Flight nurse Matthew Bowe was critically injured. Repsher was burned over 90 percent of his body, which quickly led to kidney failure.
His last dialysis treatment was the day before the transplant surgeries at the University of Colorado Hospital.
"It's just so hard to put into words what this means," Repsher said Thursday in the ski patrol room at Copper's base area. "They say donation is the gift of life, and it really is. It's given us a second chance to hopefully do some of the things that we could do before, get back out there and enjoy life. 'Thank you' just doesn't suffice."
Repsher and Martinez are still getting to know each other. They have more in common than a kidney and a love of the mountains, Amanda said. They both have giving hearts.
Repsher was a full-time ski patroller before deciding to become an ambulance paramedic, then a nurse while still serving as a ski-patrol volunteer. Martinez, an electrician by trade, loves his volunteer work keeping the slopes safe.
"Dave has always been a person who puts everybody else first, just a huge heart and incredible person," said Amanda, turning from her husband to Martinez. "I'm quickly learning that Matt, you are cut out of the same cloth. You two both are just completely giving people, loving people."
Martinez says doesn't feel like a hero -- he feels humbled by the experience.
"Part of the story that grabbed me was Dave went back into the helicopter that was on fire to get the pilot out," said Martinez, 39, a single father who lives in Superior and has two teenage sons, one of whom has been legally blind since birth.
"That guy's been through hell and back," Martinez said. "Knowing all that and knowing what his family is going through were the biggest factors in me wanting to donate to him. Get him back out, let him start enjoying life again."
Repsher officially joined the list of nearly 1,900 people in Colorado on the kidney transplant waiting list in January.
The month before, at a Christmas party, Martinez heard that Repsher had been cleared for a transplant. He decided to get tested to see if he was a match for Repsher or for a longtime friend and father of four who is on the list.
He matched with Repsher. Martinez knew having only one functioning kidney would increase his risk for diabetes, which runs in his family, but felt donating was the right thing to do.
Martinez said he may never forget the look of gratitude on the face of Repsher's mother shortly after the surgeries, when she held up a catheter bag that was filling with urine, signaling that his kidney was already functioning in her son's body.
Repsher was busy with doctor, therapy and dialysis appointments before the surgery.
He had begun to reclaim parts of his life, volunteering seven days in the lower patrol room at Copper Mountain last ski season. The gig -- he jokingly refers to it as adult day care -- gave Amanda a break from 24/7 caregiving and gave him the chance to put some of his medical knowledge to use in a place that often is the first stop for people injured on the mountain.
Now just a month since the transplant, Amanda says their new situation "doesn't seem real yet." Repsher, 47, has only lately started to feel better. Friends notice his face isn't as puffy and there is a new light in his eyes.
"We are so blessed and so humbled by the level of support and love that has come our way," Amanda said. "This is so huge, and what Matt has done just is unbelievable."
Martinez was released from the hospital two days after the surgery. He still can't work because doctors don't want him lifting anything heavy until his abdomen has healed, and his work as an electrician routinely requires him to carry 60 to 75 pounds of gear. He's a muscular man who enjoys working out in the gym, something he is antsy to resume.
The day he got out of the hospital he went a on mile-and-a-half walk with his mother and his dog at a park near Standley Lake.
"It felt good just to get out and move," Martinez said. "It felt like I did 1,000 sit-ups and then someone punched me in the gut. The next day, I did two miles. Middle of the second week, I did a hike up to Columbine Lake outside of Winter Park, like a 7 1/2-mile hike."
Martinez is hopeful that he will be cleared to work in early October. Friends have set up a crowdfunding campaign at youcaring.com to make up some of the lost income.
When the Repshers showed up in the patrol room Thursday morning, ski patrol supervisor Janie Merickel was struck by how much better Repsher looked since the transplant. After she gushed over him, she turned to Martinez and gave him a bear hug.
"You're an angel," she said. "There's a whole lot of people who love you."
But that's not what motivated him to donate, he said.
"The only thing I wanted out of all of this is to make sure that Dave and his family can move on with life, to be happy and make sure he gets back on the mountain, enjoy life," Martinez said. "And, if any story came out of it, that it would help promote other people who want to donate (organs)."
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