Dr. Robb Gaffney is known for schralping the slopes of Squaw with the greatest of ease. So this past spring, when he started to notice that he was experiencing some difficulty hiking the hills of the Sierra Nevada, he knew something wasn’t right. Fast forward a few months to the present, and Robb has found himself in the midst of the fight of his life, with the people of the community he knows and loves rallying right behind him.
“My brother has been put through the ringer the past few years,” Scott Gaffney, Robb’s older, told Moonshine Ink. “People have seen that he’s a fighter.”
Having gone through shoulder surgery one year and suffering from a debilitating knee dislocation the next, Robb, a popular psychiatrist in Tahoe City, noticed that he wasn’t feeling quite himself. Blood tests revealed that his platelet and red and white blood cell counts were all dangerously low. Following months of increasing symptoms, Robb made the rounds through exhaustive testing at Tahoe Forest Hospital and UC Davis, ultimately landing at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he will undergo treatments for Myelodysplastic Syndrome with Blasts.
A rare bone marrow cancer, Robb has the most high-risk form which will result in a bone marrow transplant at the Houston facility. He presently is dependent on transfusions of red blood cells and platelets in order to stay alive, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help defray incurred medical costs. He is also getting chemotherapy five times monthly to attack the blast cells, and is striving to stay otherwise healthy given that his severely low white blood cell count leaves him dangerously susceptible to infection.
Robb became a ski-town-household name as the big-mountain ski scene was starting to explode in Squaw Valley in the 1990s. He appeared with other local legends like Jonny Mosley, JT Holmes, CR Johnson, Jeff McKitterick, and Shane McConkey in classic ski flicks like 1999, Walls of Freedom, and Immersion, directed by his equally talented skier brother Scott.
While none of Robb’s brothers were a match, two unrelated donors were located. The transplant will take place in Houston, where he will have to spend four months.
“Essentially, doctors will use chemo and radiation to eliminate Robb’s entire immune system — including all his immunizations from childhood. They’ll replace his original immune system with that of a healthy person, who will act as the donor,” family friend Renee Koijane wrote in a GoFundMe post. She set up the account on the fundraising platform for Robb and his family to help with high medical bills related to his diagnosis. Within 24 hours, the campaign was already a over a quarter of the way to its $100,000 goal, currently with over $38,000 raised.
Scott noted that, at 48, Robb has age on his side as he undergoes the transplant, ensuing chemotherapy for a year after. Since his diagnosis, he’s had to scale back his practice and was advised by doctors to take a six-month hiatus from work all together. The entire length of recovery projected for this disease, Scott said, is three years.
The family’s financial burden goes well beyond the cost of the transplant and treatments. There are often co-pays and medical expenses not covered by insurance; costs of lodging and living expenses for the four months Robb will have to stay in Houston will not be cheap; and add to that airfare for his wife Andrea, son Noah, a first-year student at UC Davis, and high-school-aged daughter Kate, to be able to visit their father.
Melissa Siig, who along with her husband Steven owns Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema in Tahoe City, told Moonshine Ink that there will be an Oct. 3 fundraiser, Rally for Robb, for the man she considers a longtime friend.
“Robb is such a fundamental part of the community in so many ways,” said Siig, citing as examples his reputation as a “master of Squaw Valley ski lines,” author of ski bum cult classic book Squallywood, his career in psychiatry, and his unwavering commitment to the place he has called home since the mid-’90s. And he co-created the Game of G.N.A.R. (Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness) with the late ski-great McConkey. What stands out most, however, is his status as a community advocate through his involvement with grassroots organization Keep Squaw True, which is putting up a fight against proposed development at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows.
Siig first learned of Robb’s diagnosis about a month ago and, like many in the North Tahoe area, she wanted to do something to help. When she was approached by Renee about holding a fundraising event at the cinema for this “icon of our community,” she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“I was so happy to have this venue,” she said. “People just want to do something … this will give them a place to congregate.”
The Oct. 3 fundraiser will feature 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. showings of Matchstick Productions’ 1999 and Immersion, both directed by Scott and featuring segments of Robb shredding Squaw Valley. Tickets are $15 for kids and $20 for adults. There will be raffle prizes galore — donations have been pouring in, said Siig, and Scott noted that raffle tickets will be sold at various locations throughout the area; winners need not be present at the event.
“It’s wonderful to see the community rally — everybody has each others’ backs,” said Scott. “Robb has given a lot to a lot of people and people are going to … help him power back.”
Main Image Caption: FAMILY TIES: Robb Gaffney, right, with (from left) daughter Kate, son Noah, and wife Andrea.