Steamboat Springs Norman Allen Townsend fought in Vietnam as a Special Forces officer and has argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, but he was not prepared to answer a question posed to him on the afternoon of Feb. 25.
Townsend sat in a room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., when he was told that he could extend the life of a woman he was romantically involved with about 30 years ago.
"It took my breath away," Townsend said. "I had to do some real soul searching."
Townsend ended up in the Maryland hospital because of an off-the-cuff remark he had made to Vivian Pommier about five months earlier.
The 49-year-old woman's kidneys were failing and she needed a kidney transplant. The 56-year-old Townsend held the key to the woman's survival.
After months of numerous blood and urine tests, physicals and a thorough review of his medical history, Townsend was deemed a suitable donor.
"I thought I was prepared for it," Townsend said.
After fighting in the Vietnam War as an officer in the Army and graduating from UCLA with a degree in political science, Townsend was accepted to the George Washington University School of Law in 1974.
At the Washington, D.C., university, Townsend would meet Pommier, who was an undergraduate at the time.
The two became close and ended up moving in together. After two years, both went their separate ways and lost all contact with each other. Both would get married and have families but would later divorce.
After graduating from law school, Townsend practiced law in Washington and had two of his cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Townsend would make a stop teaching law at Georgia State University in Atlanta before taking a job in Steamboat Springs as a public defender in 1986.
Pommier would build a successful Washington travel agency, Westend Travel, which specializes in corporate travel.
The two crossed paths in Steamboat Springs in the winter of 1986 when Pommier came to her Steamboat condominium on vacation.
"It was a fluke meeting," Townsend said. "But things happen for a reason."
Townsend was having dinner at Mattie Silks one evening when he ran into Pommier.
"All I heard was, 'Oh my God! Norm Townsend!'" he said he heard Pommier say at the restaurant.
Townsend and Pommier would slowly renew a friendship. The two would get together occasionally when she came to Steamboat and would talk regularly on the telephone.
Throughout their friendship, Pommier never told Townsend she was having trouble with her kidneys, which developed cysts.
"The doctors don't know why her kidneys started to fail," Townsend said. "They think it might have happened five years ago on a Caribbean cruise."
On the cruise, Pommier had eaten food that had been tainted with E. coli, a bacteria.
Since the cruise, Pommier's kidneys continued to deteriorate to the point that she needed a transplant.
Dialysis, which filters waste product from the bloodstream artificially, was on the horizon for her.
Pommier, whose family fled the Nazi regime, was an only child and didn't have any immediate family to turn to for help.
"She said she felt awkward approaching friends for help," Townsend said.
One day in September, Townsend was chatting with his friend when he asked, "How is life?"
Pommier told Townsend of her situation with her kidneys and said she needed a transplant.
"'I have an extra one of those,'" Townsend said he told his friend. "'You can have one of mine.'
"It started out very casually."
Townsend was one of 10 friends who stepped forward to help Pommier. Other potential donors included John Thompson, former Georgetown University basketball coach and current NBA broadcaster.
After initial blood and urine tests were done, which did not rule out Townsend as a donor, he continued with test after test.
Finally in February, Townsend flew out to Maryland for a day of intense testing at the National Institutes of Health.
There Townsend filled 28 tubes with his blood, filled countless cups with urine and underwent an MRI, CAT scan and chest X-rays.
He also met with a psychiatrist and a social worker. After all the tests, X-rays and mental evaluations were thoroughly examined, Townsend was delivered the news.
"'You're it,'" Townsend said medical officials told him. "'Are you sure you want to do this?'"
Townsend did not answer the question right away. He asked for a night to think it over.
"I was afraid," he said.
Townsend spent an emotional night crying and talking with Pommier, who had told Townsend throughout the situation he did not have to do this.
Finally, Townsend made up his mind.
"Fear was not a good enough reason to say no," he said. "A couple of months of discomfort on my part meant a potential lifetime to my friend Vivian."
Doctors who had been assigned to Townsend and Pommier were ready to do the transplant immediately.
Townsend was able to postpone the operation to March 5 because he wanted to return to Colorado and watch his son Charlie, a senior at Lowell Whiteman, play his last hockey game.
Before the operation, Townsend was given numerous chances to not follow through with the surgery.
"Right before they administered the anesthetic, I was asked if I wanted to back out," Townsend said.
Four hours later, Townsend's left kidney had been removed. To remove the kidney, doctors cut a five-inch incision straight above Townsend's belly button.
The kidney was later placed into Pommier during a two-hour procedure.
"I went into the hospital healthy," Townsend said. "Vivian went in gravely ill. Two days after the surgery, I was a basket case, and Vivian went from gravely ill to healthy in a couple of days."
Townsend was released from the hospital March 9 and stayed with friends for a week in Virginia.
Pommier remains in the hospital. The chemicals doctors are injecting into her body to make sure her body does not reject the kidney have made her ill, Townsend said.
"There are no signs her body will reject the kidney," Townsend said. "It turns out this kidney is the only way we are compatible."
Last Monday, Townsend returned to his office on Oak Street.
"I have good and bad days," he said. "I do run out of gas in the afternoon, so I take a nap."
Since he arrived back in Steamboat, Townsend has received numerous cards, which use the words "saint" and "hero."
"I don't know about that," Townsend said. "There are tons of people who have done this."
Townsend is expected to make a full recovery, and the only restriction placed upon him is he can't participate in any contact sports.
"It is nice to help someone else in a real meaningful way," he said. "The reality is all I need is one kidney. Whether I have two does not matter."