Waiting to be saved: Rich Caples needs a kidney transplant

Vail Valley local spends many of his waking hours at the new Kidney Center of the Rockies in Avon

Rich Caples is alive and living well because of dialysis treatments at the Kidney Center of the Rockies in Avon's Buck Creek Medical Plaza. Still, Caples, who has lived in the valley since 1978, needs a donor kidney.
Courtesy Rich Caples

For donor information

Vail Valley's Rich Caples is on the waiting list for a kidney through the University of Colorado Medical Center. For information go to: at



AVON — Rich Caples knew something wasn’t right when his energy deserted him and all he wanted was sleep.

In the U.S. more than 100,000 people are waiting for donor organs, mostly kidneys. Many will die waiting. Each year, around 17,000 donated kidneys will become available.

The Vail Valley’s Rich Caples is one of those waiting … has been for years. Diabetes and hypertension are the two leading causes of kidney failure. Caples has both. There was no family history of that sort of thing. There is now.

New local treatment option

You need one kidney to live. Most people have two.

“Both of my kidneys are shot,” Caples said.

Support Local Journalism

Caples spends many of his waking hours at the new Kidney Center of the Rockies in Avon’s Buck Creek Medical Plaza, He’s on dialysis three days a week for five hours a day. For decades, dialysis patients had to go to Denver or Grand Junction.

He takes work with him sometimes. Brings his books and his iPad to help pass the 15 or more hours each week that keep him alive.

“I never thought I’d need a kidney,” he said.

Caples has lived in the Vail Valley since 1978, a family man, hockey player, skier and builder … mostly in that order, he said.

He didn’t realize how sick he was until relatively recently. During an annual physical, his doctors spotted his problem. They started him on dialysis almost immediately.

“I had no energy. I would wake up at 7 o’clock, take a nap at 1 o’clock and go to bed at 7 o’clock,” he said. “I thought I was getting older and, of course, I was.”

That dialysis machine is almost a time machine. Caples can ski again and play hockey again. He’s living again, not just existing between naps. Still, if he doesn’t get a kidney …

Because of dialysis through the Kidney Center of the Rockies, Rich Caples can play hockey again.
Rich Caples photo

Perspective is everything and during one dialysis session, Caples was sitting beside a guy who could win the Olympic gold medal for grumpiness. During that five-hour dialysis session Caples did a little introspection and decided he would not be like that. He isn’t. The people in the clinic now call him “Sunshine.”

He has been approved for a kidney. A couple potential donors have surfaced, but both fizzled for medical reasons.

“Maybe someday they’ll invent an artificial kidney,” he said

He needs a real one.

“I’m healthy enough to get one. That’s better than some others,” Caples said. “Kidneys are the longest wait for donors of all the organs, sometimes five or six years. I may not be healthy enough in five or six years to get one.”

In the meantime he waits by the phone.

The crusader

Dr. Bob Hickey’s former Eagle Ranch neighbor, architect Dave Peele, played hockey with Caples for decades, and the connection was made.

Hickey is helping Caples wade through the process, a process he knows all too well.

Hickey was famous for a while, still is in some circles. Hickey had put his affairs in order and was preparing to enter hospice and die. In 2003 he was the first kidney transplant patient to find a donor online instead of through traditional channels.

Rich Caples has a lot to live for, including his daughter Kristen.
Rich Caples photo

When Hickey’s doctor found out how Hickey had found his donor, he refused to perform the surgery. Three days later he relented and agreed to do the operation.

It cost Hickey $5,200 to get his donor up from Tennessee to Denver.

Since then, Hickey has been a crusader, helping streamline the donor process.

“There’s a black market for it. You can buy a surrogate wife. Or a heart. But not a kidney,” Hickey said.

You put your information on donor websites — Hickey suggested — and sift through the responses, usually thousands of them. Hickey said he had 4,000 responses in 2003 when the internet was in its infancy.

“No one thought of screening the people who wanted to be donors,” Hickey said.

Lots of foreign donors want money in exchange for a kidney or other organ. Others want a green card or some other payment.

“That’s illegal in the U.S.,” he said.

Then you have to make sure the donor is compatible in a healthy way.

Since Hickey’s transplant he has helped 204 patients and has battled tirelessly, and helped streamline the process for thousands of others. These days he has help from Rotary Clubs, who tend to embrace patients in their area.

Cadavers are still a big source for kidneys. But unlike most organs, kidneys can come from a living donor. Colorado is one of the more donor-friendly states. Six of 10 Coloradans are registered on their driver’s licenses as organ donors, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Still, there are far more patients than donors, Hickey said.

“You have to advocate for yourself. There are so many people looking for kidneys,” Hickey said.

Staying home and healthy

Before the Kidney Center of the Rockies opened in Avon, Hickey, Caples and everyone else had to drive to Denver or Grand Junction three times a week for dialysis. Don’t make the drive and you die. Some did, Hickey said.

You get registered in the area of the country where you live. The country is split into eight regions and for $565 per area you can register in each one, Hickey said.

Rich Caples is living again, not just existing between naps, thanks to dialysis through the Kidney Center of the Rockies in Avon’s Buck Creek Medical Plaza. Still, Caples needs a kidney transplant to go on living.
Rich Caples photo

Medicaid will pay for Caples’ transplant, but he also needs private insurance — and a kidney. Before he can get his transplant, he has to be able to pay for three years of post-transplant medications, Hickey said. They’re raising money as fast as they can.

Dialysis as a tourist attraction

It’s called medical tourism and dialysis can be part of it. Winter Park does it. So do some cruise lines, Hickey said.

The American Renal Association put the clinic in Avon where Dr. Michael Anger is the chief medical director.

Clinic manager Wanda Trudeau grew up in the field. She also grew up in the Vail Valley and has deep roots here. Her family extends to the Nottinghams of Avon fame.

She graduated Battle Mountain High School and says she wanted to pay it forward.

She was a youngster working in an Englewood clinic and Hickey was one of her patients. That was 2003 and there wasn’t much to do during dialysis except make conversation. Hickey used to tell her he was going to recruit four other doctors and start a center.

When Trudeau was recruited to the Vail Valley she and her family didn’t think twice.

The Kidney Center of the Rockies’ patients come from all over the region and world: Basalt, Steamboat, Summit County, Kremmling, Glenwood Springs, and Eagle County. Caples is among all the locals. A European man travels to the valley for dialysis in Avon. Trudeau says he calls it the best clinic in the world.

Their Avon clinic is set up like a vacation destination with huge picture windows and views of the surrounding mountains. The dialysis chairs are heated, and even vibrate if you want them to.

“We try to make it very special,” Trudeau said.

Patients can come three times a week, or they can do it at home.

“Yes, you can do dialysis at home. We offer services that help people lead their normal life,” Trudeau said.

One guy drives up from Glenwood. A young mom has to schlep her kids to dialysis, or schedule it so she can pick up her kids from school. She may have kidney failure, but she’s still a mom.

A 92-year-old is on dialysis. He’s doing very well, Trudeau said.

So is Caples, but for now he waits by his phone for a donor call.

“I don’t have a lot more important things going on than my health,” Caples said.

Support Local Journalism