The Olympic ski jumper felt utterly calm as he stood on long skis at the top of a 300-foot-tower.
He breathed deeply, then took off, reaching 55 miles per hour as he flew through the air for several seconds over the length of a football field.
Randy Weber learned ski jumping in his hometown of Steamboat Springs. He started skiing at age 3 and soon was bombing down race courses. But ski racing didn’t give Randy enough of an adrenaline rush. So when he was just 6, he followed his older brother over to Howelsen Hill, Steamboat’s famous downtown ski jump training center that has helped this northern Colorado town clinch the record for the most winter Olympians — 100 and counting.
“I loved it instantly. There was no fear,” Randy said. “It’s as unique a sport as you will find. It’s the most fun you can ever have.”
By age 13, he was traveling internationally to compete. He was just 16 when he competed in his first Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994. At the time, he was one of the youngest winter Olympians. He competed in his second Olympics at age 20 in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
Randy won five national ski jumping titles and in his top international finish, clinched sixth place at a 1995 World Cup event in Predazzo, Italy.
During competitions in stunning mountain villages around the world, Randy never got nervous.
Instead, at pivotal moments, serenity enveloped him.
Decades later, when a rare disease destroyed Randy’s kidney and liver, he had to succumb to a rare double organ transplant in 2022.
Fortunately, much like their patient as he prepared to fly off a ski jump, Randy’s transplant doctors had prepared extensively and were calm and focused as they performed the first double living-donor kidney and liver transplant that ever had been done in the Rocky Mountain region.
Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret and Dr. James Pomposelli, the married doctors leading the complex procedure, had met on the school bus back in high school, had trained and worked together for decades and had done six previous double living-donor kidney and liver organ transplants when they worked in Boston.
So, the former Olympian was in very good hands. You might say that the Olympians of transplant surgeries were taking care of him.
“There’s a lot of risk associated with a transplant like this,” said Pomfret, chief of transplant surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
“With two living donors, we have to cross-match all three people. It’s very complicated. You have surgeries staggered throughout the day,” Pomfret said. “But Randy was the right candidate. He had a tremendous social support system and great friends and relatives who stepped up to donate to him.”
Randy’s two donors were his older brother, Geol Weber, who gave Randy one of his kidneys, and a friend, Kelly Williams, a veteran who fought with the Marines in Iraq and provided a large portion of her liver.
“To donate an organ is an absolutely extraordinary thing,” Pomfret said. “They were all totally committed to doing this. You don’t get a better example of the decency of human beings.”
In the midst of the pandemic, former Olympian’s kidneys, then his liver started failing
Back in 2016, a strange rash appeared on Randy’s body. At first, he thought he was having a reaction to a chemical at work. Following his retirement from ski jumping in his early 20s, Randy and a friend from Steamboat opened a garage southwest of Denver where they worked on specialty cars. He has a special affection for Porsches.
What appeared to be a skin problem wasn’t a skin problem at all. Instead, blood vessels under Randy’s skin were popping and causing bruises all over his body. A dermatologist urged Randy to go to an ER. That’s where he learned that he had a rare condition known as Henoch-Schonlein Purpura Vasculitis or HSP. The disease is more common in children than adults, but can be more severe in adults. It can also cause kidney disease.
Randy had to go on steroids and other medications that wiped out his immune system. For a time, the drugs kept his HSP under control, and Randy did well.
Then in the fall of 2020, he started getting pounding migraine headaches. He was exhausted at work and his lower body was swelling. Because of the pandemic, Randy avoided going to the doctor. Then in early 2021, he saw his doctor and immediately had to be hospitalized. His blood pressure was dangerously high. He was on the verge of a stroke, and his kidneys were failing.
Randy soon learned he was going to need a new kidney. A couple of weeks later, he had to face even more alarming news: his liver was failing too.
That meant he was going to need a double organ transplant.
In Randy’s words, the doctors basically told him this: “We can’t give you a good kidney when you have a bad liver. So, you need a liver too.”
Always fiercely independent, he would need to beg friends and family to consider donating a kidney and liver
Being sick is lousy for everyone. Coping with a chronic illness is especially hard for a person who once counted on his body to deliver world-class results.
To keep Randy alive, doctors started telling him what he could and couldn’t do, and that was no fun.
“I hate following directions, have very little patience and I like to be in control,” said Randy, who is just as famous for his wry sense of humor as he is for his ski jumping.
Of course, being in control worked well when he excelled in an individual sport.
“I’m a terrible team player,” Randy said. “I loved my teammates. We would have done anything for each other. But none of us ever wanted to lose to the other.”
Worse still, Randy soon learned that it would be almost impossible for him to get two organs from a deceased donor. A revelation hit him. This independent guy, who hated asking for help and had run his own business for 18 years, was going to have to beg people to save his life.
“I knew if I didn’t find my own donors, my future amounted to years and years of dialysis and diminishing health. Doctors don’t really give you the ‘You’re going to die’ speech, but they’d say, ‘You should really start asking people for the organs. You need to help yourself.’”
In addition to being wickedly funny, Randy is wickedly honest about the ordeal he has endured.
He describes the hunt for donors like this.
“It’s a very difficult thing to start discussing. It’s such a huge ask. But once you crack the seal, it’s really easy. You just say, ‘Can I have part of your body please?’”
His brother, a teacher and lifelong partner in crime, had same blood type and donated a kidney
One of Randy’s first asks was of his older brother, Geol (pronounced Joel), whom Randy fondly calls “Hole.” That nickname relates to a crazy story when the brothers were young and broke. They were in Scotland and wanted to visit the famous castle in Inverness on Loch Ness. But they didn’t want to pay the admission fee.
“We walked around the back and decided to scale the walls,” Geol said.
Their “storm the castle” moment is memorialized in a photo of Geol trying to come through a hole in the castle.
These days, Geol is teaching kids about history instead of making it himself. He’s an 8th grade social studies teacher. The brothers are now 47 and 45. They also have a younger brother, Tracy, 42, who goes by T or Teddy. The brothers still wrestle, tease each other mercilessly and love practical jokes, just like they did when they were kids.
Geol and Randy both have Type O positive blood, and the minute Geol heard that Randy would need a transplant, he stepped up to get tested.
“My brother and I always got along. Sure, there were brother dust-ups, but I had zero hesitation,” said Geol.
“It seemed the right and natural thing to do,” Geol said. “I know if I was in that situation, he would have done it for me. I appreciate the compliments and adulation (for being an organ donor). But at some level, it’s no big deal.”
Of course, for Randy, it was a huge deal, a life-saving kind of deal.
The brothers always had been partners in crime, including blasting off jumps on skis.
“I loved ski jumping. I was good at it,” said Geol. “But then Randy beat me a couple of times in a row. I decided that I needed to find something I could excel at that he couldn’t. So, I hung up my ski jumping boots and focused on team sports like football and soccer.”
Geol now teaches at Ken Caryl Middle School near his home southwest of Denver. And for years, he has helped coach the freshmen football team at Columbine High School.
Randy calls him the leader of the Weber brothers “whose personality would fill a high school gym.”
Randy’s liver donor emerged after he put the word out among friends.
She served her country in the Marines. Later, donating a large portion of her liver was a ‘no brainer.’
Kelly Williams got to know Randy through her now-husband John Alley, a Westminster Fire Department engineer and a Columbine High School wrestling coach. Randy’s son, Espen, wrestled at Columbine, then went on to be a college wrestler at Western State University in Gunnison. He graduated summa cum laude in May with a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science. Espen was a multi-year academic All American athlete.
Randy credits wrestling — and coaches like John — with changing his son’s life.
“It gave him confidence, instilled an amazing work ethic in him and made him the man he is today,” Randy said.
After Espen graduated from high school, Randy and his wife, Wendy Amendolari, kept supporting the Columbine Rebels wrestling family and became even closer with John and Kelly.
“Randy’s amazing and always volunteered to help in whatever capacity we needed help, and still does,” said Kelly. “He gives up his Saturdays to help with our tournaments and always comes to the parents and coach’s meetings to lend his thoughts and support to parents who are new to the sport.”
Kelly, of course, also got roped in to support John and the team.
Back when Kelly was in high school, she was getting in a lot of trouble.
“I was a pretty rebellious, directionless kid. I was a punk,” Kelly said.
At 17, she decided to join the Marines.
Kelly served from 2004 to 2008 and spent all of 2006 in Fallujah, Iraq. She was responsible for communication security for her platoon, and maintained secret and classified information and gear.
Kelly said joining the Marines was the best decision of her life.
“The military was eye-opening for me. From a young age, I learned the value of human life,” Kelly said.
And it made it easy to step up when Randy needed help.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” she said.
Kelly comes from a family with a rich tradition of serving others.
“My dad was a cop. My mom was a nurse. I was in the military. When someone needs help, you just do it,” she said.
John also serves people through his firefighting job and as a coach. He also got tested to become an organ donor, but wasn’t a match. Throughout the ordeal, John supported Kelly and their friend whose health was cratering fast.
“Randy looked really sick,” Kelly said. “He was going to die without a transplant. If it were one of us, you’d hope we wouldn’t have to plead our case. Plus, Randy would have done it for any one of us.”
After her military service, Kelly became a licensed clinical social worker and now supports indigent people facing charges in the criminal justice system.
“My job is to humanize people and provide context for someone’s behavior. On defense teams, we provide a holistic picture of who a person is to help the court better understand factors that might have contributed to the defendant’s behavior,” Kelly said.
To support Randy, Kelly was willing to donate either a kidney or part of her liver. Some women don’t have a large enough liver to donate to a man because the surgery requires doctors to take about 40 to 60% of the donor’s liver. Kelly is tall and slender, close to Randy’s size. It turned out that she boasted a beautiful, relatively large liver.
“I kept passing all of their tests and I didn’t have barriers to prevent me from donating. We don’t have children. I have a flexible schedule and I have a supportive family,” Kelly said.
Friends and family went through testing to donate a liver or kidney. Then came the big reveal.
To be sure that potential organ donors do not feel pressure from friends and relatives who need organ transplants, social workers keep the process confidential until all the details are ironed out.
By last fall, Randy’s team informed him that plans for the double transplant were progressing well, but they hadn’t yet disclosed who his liver donor would be.
On Nov. 7, 2021, John and Kelly came to watch Randy’s son wrestle at a college match in Golden.
Randy updated his friends.
“My brother is looking really good. I keep hearing rumors that I have a liver donor,” Randy said. “It’s a female, but I can’t think of who it is.”
He shared his top theory. Maybe it was his niece.
Slyly, Kelly asked if Randy would want to know his donor’s identity.
“Of course,” he said.
Then Kelly put her arm around Randy and revealed the big news.
“It’s me, silly,” she said.
Randy started crying on the spot, hugged both Kelly and John and thanked them over and over again.
A group hug before historic double living-donor kidney and liver transplant, then a vow: ‘See you on the other side.’
Once all of the pre-transplant testing and preparations were complete, Randy, Geol and Kelly each had to be extremely careful to avoid getting COVID-19 so the complex surgeries could take place as scheduled on Feb. 23, 2022.
The trio ribbed each other endlessly through their group chat.
On the day of the surgeries, Kelly and Randy needed to be there first. The doctors would perform the liver transplant first, then they’d remove one of Geol’s kidneys and place it in Randy’s body.
As Kelly headed into the hospital, she couldn’t resist needling Randy.
“Hey, I woke up late, I don’t know if I’m going to make it on time,” she texted him.
“Are you f-ing kidding me?” Randy responded.
“Ha ha, see you soon,” Kelly texted back.
She was nervous as she headed into the hospital.
“My heart was beating really fast,” Kelly said. “It was snowy and wintry and cold. It was beautiful walking in to the hospital.”
Kelly and Randy checked in at the same time.
“We did one more group hug: Kelly and John and my wife and me,” Randy said.
After years of competition, he’s good at getting mentally prepared. But this was different; other people’s lives were on the line.
“It’s the exact opposite of ski jumping. I have zero control,” Randy said.
“I was worried for Kelly and Geol. If anything was going to go wrong, I wanted it to go wrong for me,” Randy said.
He and Kelly tried to reassure one another.
“I told her I loved her and said, ‘thank you,’” Randy said.
Kelly was worried about John, who of course, would spend all day worrying about her.
She told herself to stay calm and reassured Randy.
“Everything’s going to be OK,” she told him. “See you on the other side.”
High school sweethearts evolved into organ transplant pros. He proudly says of her: ‘She’s the boss.’
Double living-donor kidney and liver transplants are very rare.
Drs. Pomfret and Pomposelli had done them before and now were about to perform their first in the Rocky Mountain region.
The transplant specialists met back when she was 16 and he was 17. They dated in high school, then went to separate colleges in the northeast, but kept in touch. Both aspired to go to medical school.
“By fate, we both got in at Boston University,” Pomposelli said. “We got married during medical school and both matched at one of the Harvard residencies.”
While doing their general surgery fellowships, both doctors spent time in Germany learning from Dr. Christoph Broelsch, a pioneer in living-donor transplant surgeries.
“We spent a couple months learning from him and brought his techniques back to the U.S.,” Pomposelli said.
Both then worked with another transplant surgeon in Boston, Dr. Roger Jenkins.
“He was the best technical surgeon I’ve ever seen. He was our mentor and hired us,” Pomposelli said.
After several years in Boston, the couple decided to move to Colorado, where Pomfret leads the transplant department.
“She’s my boss,” Pomposelli proudly says of his highly accomplished wife.
Pomfret has dramatically expanded the UCHealth transplant program.
When she arrived, doctors at University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus were doing about 60 liver and 130 kidney transplants a year. Those numbers have more than doubled to about 130 liver and 300 kidney transplants each year.
The UCHealth transplant center also does extensive transplant research along with multiple kidney, pancreas, lung and heart transplants.
Having known one another for 45 years and worked together for decades, Pomfret and Pomposelli use the same well-refined system each time they operate.
She extracts the liver from the donor. He implants the new organs in the recipient.
On the February morning of Randy’s transplant, Pomfret began the complex set of procedures by removing the exact portion of Kelly’s liver that Randy would need. In advance, the team had used 3-D imaging to model and plan the surgeries.
As expected, Kelly’s liver was perfect.
“With live donors, the organs are beautiful. They’ve only been out of the body a very short time,” Pomposelli said.
Pomposelli and his assistants went into Pomfret’s operating room, picked up the liver and carefully brought it to the adjacent operating room. There, Pomposelli and his team began the process known as “reperfusion.” This means sewing the new liver into the existing vascular connections.
“That’s the important part,” Pomposelli said.
Once blood began flowing through Randy’s new liver, Pomposelli gave the go-head for the next procedure.
“We’re good,” Pomposelli said. “Go ahead and start on the kidney donor.’”
Another expert on the team, Dr. Thomas Bak, then removed one of Geol’s kidneys, and Pomposelli sewed a second organ into Randy’s body.
“By 4:39 p.m., the kidney was reperfused,” Pomposelli said. “And by 6 p.m., we were all done.”
A challenging recovery after first double living-donor kidney and liver transplant in Rocky Mountain region
Some people who go through transplant surgeries develop complications. Randy had to deal with more than his share, but now is doing much better.
One complication related to his bile ducts.
“The bile ducts are extremely sensitive to interruptions in blood flow,” Pomposelli explained.
The liver has two key portals: the hepatic artery, which brings oxygenated blood to the liver, and the portal vein, which brings blood into the liver from the intestine.
Randy dealt with what’s called a thrombosis of the hepatic artery. When he received his new liver, his existing bile duct system reacted poorly due to the short period when blood flow was cut off.
“This resulted in him getting a bile duct stricture or a narrowing in the duct. This is the most common problem we deal with after liver transplants,” Pomposelli said.
“They cause bile to back up into the liver,” Pomposelli said. “The blockage is like a dam. When you have a dam in a river, it turns into a lake behind it.”
Randy needed catheters to drain the bile. Then doctors used balloons to expand Randy’s narrowed bile ducts.
“It’s analogous to a person who has a blockage in their coronary artery and they need a stent,” Pomposelli said.
“At least 10% of liver transplant recipients get these strictures. They typically happen within the first year after a transplant. If a person gets through the first year without one, then they’re usually in pretty good shape,” he said.
Multiple trips to the hospital and pain dogged Randy during the spring and summer.
Thankfully, his new organs performed beautifully.
“His liver and kidney function are perfect,” Pomposelli.
Pomposelli loves to ski and enjoyed getting to know an Olympian. Pomposelli has given Randy the go-ahead to ski this winter if he wishes.
Donors faced pain after transplant, but Kelly rebounded in time for a first-dance surprise at her summer wedding
While Randy was dealing with his challenges, Geol and Kelly rebounded faster. Each had to deal with some pain. As Geol’s remaining kidney took over, his body temporarily failed to excrete uric acid properly, and he developed gout. It caused severe pain that thankfully now has eased.
The surgery to remove part of a person’s liver is much more painful than the minimally invasive procedure that kidney donors endure.
Kelly dealt with extreme exhaustion, which is typical for liver donors. Their bodies are working hard to grow a new portion of the liver.
“When my body was ready to rest, I was out,” Kelly said. “They told me that 80% of the liver regrowth happens in the first 30 days. By my one-month checkup, my liver blood work numbers had stabilized, which showed that my liver had grown enough to sustain my body.”
The pain was challenging too.
“The first two weeks were brutal. Sleeping and moving were hard. You don’t realize how much you use your core muscles,” Kelly said.
She also had to cope with severe back aches. Due to an emergency surgery for another patient on the morning of the double transplant, Kelly was on the operating table longer than is typical, and being flat on her back for so many hours left her back even more sore than her abdomen.
Even so, Kelly managed to return to work seven weeks after the surgery, and her back pain eventually receded.
Next up was healing fully so she and John could dance at their wedding. Because of the pandemic, the couple had been forced to postpone their nuptials twice. The third time was a charm, and Kelly and John were married at The Lyons Farmette in Lyons, Colorado on July 29.
“It was great. At the end of the first dance, I flipped over John’s back. I never could have imagined that I would recover quickly enough for that to be possible,” Kelly said.
Randy was able to attend the wedding. He has a Scottish kilt that he wears exclusively for happy occasions. It was just right for the wedding and also camouflaged the biliary drain and suction bulb that protruded from his right side. He ran the tube down into the kilt and safety pinned the bulb up inside the front fold.
When it came time for speeches, Randy had everyone in tears. He talked about the stand-up groom and the hero bride.
He said he would not be standing there without Kelly’s remarkable courage.
“I will never be able to thank Kelly and John enough for this amazing gift,” Randy said. “You already have given so much to Espen and our family. This gift of life is simply amazing. I love you guys!”
A beloved Porsche, a new ‘sister’ and ‘cool’ transplant scars as trio evolve into advocates for life-saving living-donor organ transplants
Randy’s recovery has been utterly humbling.
“They give you a list of complications before the surgery. I didn’t expect to have all of them. Seriously, it seemed to become more of a checklist for me. The recovery has been longer and harder than I expected,” he said.
But he’s incredibly relieved that Kelly and Geol are doing well.
“If someone was going to have a rough time, I would have picked me,” he said.
Randy is getting stronger every day and now is mulling future plans. (He sold his garage before the transplant.)
“It’s amazing. I feel really, really good now,” Randy said. “I might do something crazy like go to college and become a lawyer.”
The gift of life has been remarkable for Randy’s donors as well. Geol is relishing his expanded family.
“We’ve never had a sister,” Geol said. “Kelly’s like a sister now. Her surgery was much bigger, a much larger sacrifice. She did something that she had no obligation to do. It’s a testament to her character and John’s character. Her sense of humor is right in line with my brother and me. She’s an amazing, amazing woman.”
Kelly loves being a live donor.
She proudly shows off the eight-inch scar on her belly.
“I love it. It’s cool. You don’t see big abdominal scars. It’s such a great conversation starter about live liver donation,” Kelly said.
She has become an advocate for living donation and serves as a resource for anyone considering it.
“Prior to Randy’s situation, I didn’t even know you could donate a liver,” Kelly said. “I was fortunate that a former living donor, Meredith McCurdy, talked me through her process which really eased my nerves. Having gone through it, it’s way more doable than I ever imagined.”
As for Randy, he’s got a whole new perspective after dealing with his illness, the pandemic and the transplant surgery.
“I’ve learned to stop worrying about all the small stuff. I don’t live in the fanciest house, so what. I’ve also had to let some dreams go,” Randy said.
But he’s utterly clear that gratitude and humility will fuel him now.
“My plan is to focus on getting healthy and strong. I’m so proud that my son is his own man. My wife is incredibly supportive, not just through my transplant surgery, but in all I do.”
Oh, and he did get to buy a Porsche.
For years, Randy had taken great care of other people’s cars, including many Porsches. He hoped to someday buy one of his own. During one of his hospital stays over the summer, he was browsing online when he spotted a used Porsche for sale in Fort Lupton on Denver’s eastern plains. The car had been sitting there for months.
Randy called about it, and once he was well enough, he took a look in person.
It drove like a dream, so Randy brought it home.
“I have been extremely fortunate in my life. I have an incredible family, wonderful friends, and enough stories to fill a small library.”