The kidney donors pose at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro | photo by Tom Racek of Summit Pointe Productions

A group of living kidney donors climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for kidney donations.

FOR TWO YEARS, BOBBY MCLAUGHLIN ’89 planned and prepared to scale Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. McLaughlin, who donated a kidney in 2019, dreamed of summiting the tallest mountain on the African continent with a group of organ donors to show the world what a living kidney donor can still do.

Just hours away from the final peak, however, McLaughlin had a difficult decision to make. It was 3:30 a.m. on March 10, 2022: World Kidney Day. Twenty-one living kidney donors had ascended to 18,000 feet. The final climb would take them to the top: 19,341 feet above sea level. But McLaughlin had come down with a high fever.

He pulled aside his friend and fellow climber, Coloradan Jay Irwin. “Jay, I know my body. I can’t make it any further,” McLaughlin told him through tears. “I will jeopardize the rest of the group if I continue and create an emergency situation. I’m going to turn around and head back down.”

Irwin protested at first, offering to piggyback McLaughlin to the top of the world’s highest, free-standing mountain. Instead, he honored McLaughlin’s request for Irwin to lead the group to the summit.

“That was certainly tough to watch him call it and walk back down,” said Irwin, who donated a kidney to a friend three years ago. “I don’t think Kilimanjaro would have happened without Bobby.”

A sense of calling

For McLaughlin, the journey toward becoming a kidney donor began with a bicycle accident in 2016. After surgery, he awoke to a doctor explaining his wrist had been reconstructed with donor tissue and bone.

“It really grabbed my attention that I had a part of somebody else in my wrist,” McLaughlin said. “I love playing golf and catch with my son. I was super grateful.”

Later, he met a kidney donor recipient. She recounted how the transplant allowed her to live her life again and how that positively affected her family and friends.

“That was the clincher,” said McLaughlin, whose daughter and son are adults. “I’m blessed with health and fitness, and this was something I could do. I can’t really explain it to people, but I felt called to give this body part away.”

Connecting with other donor athletes

In the late ’80s, McLaughlin played soccer at Seattle Pacific University. Upon graduation, SPU hired him to be the men’s assistant soccer coach, a position he held for 10 years. SPU’s coaches inspired him with a fit-for-life mentality. After leaving soccer, he took up hiking, trail running, and mountain climbing.

More than 30 million people worldwide learned about the climb, and hundreds started the process to become living kidney donors.

The Seattle native climbs weekly and has summited Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and many of Colorado’s 14ers — mountains with elevations of at least 14,000 feet.

Prior to donating his kidney, McLaughlin discovered the organization Kidney Donor Athletes. The organization was founded by Tracey Hulick in 2018 to help athletic donors find community and encouragement.

Hulick, who donated a kidney in 2017, is an ultramarathoner. As an athlete, she struggled to find stories of what to expect after donating a kidney. Her organization invites donors to share stories on KDA’s website of why they donated their organs and how they stay active after giving away a kidney.

On New Year’s Day 2019, Hulick and four other kidney donor friends were in Denver together watching the movie Zoolander.

“Bobby donates tomorrow. We should call him,” said Hulick, who had met McLaughlin over Zoom. Bobby was touched that a group of living donors who hadn’t met him in person took the time to call him before his surgery. “Little did we know, it was the very beginning of an awesome friendship,” Hulick said.

‘The ripples continue’

While some living donors give an organ to a specific recipient, McLaughlin was a non-directed donor. His kidney went to Devon, a 27-year-old father who was on dialysis three times a week. The men met a year later.

“He was able to be the husband and father he wanted to be again,” McLaughlin said.

“It’s really cool to give this body part away. When we give one kidney up, the remaining one grows to compensate. Why do we have two? Maybe we have two so we can give one away,” McLaughlin said.

Three years after Devon received McLaughlin’s kidney, he died from COVID-19. Organ recipients take immunosuppressants to lower the body’s ability to reject a new organ, leaving Devon more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Although the death was heartbreaking, McLaughlin said Devon chose to donate as much of his body as possible to save other lives.

“These ripples continue,” McLaughlin said. “COVID struck him, but knowing he chose to help others has given the family a little bit of peace.”

From Yahtzee to Kilimanjaro

The kidney donors trek along on a sunny day | photo by Tom Racek of Summit Pointe ProductionsMcLaughlin grew more involved in KDA over time, participating in an online Yahtzee tournament and other virtual get-togethers during the early days of the pandemic. During a post-tournament virtual gathering, six KDA members started talking about summiting Mount Kilimanjaro together.

“Bobby took it on,” Irwin said. “He created an application and got a sponsor packet ready. Of course, other people helped, but Bobby was the cornerstone for making this trip happen.”

Twenty-two living kidney donors signed up to climb Kilimanjaro with the goal of summiting the mountain on World Kidney Day to garner media attention and raise awareness for kidney donations.

Some climbers hiked together in Colorado beforehand, but most met in person for the first time in Tanzania.

The group planned to take eight days to hike the 42 miles to the peak along the Lemosho route, summiting on day six and then beginning the descent. Fitness levels and acclimation to high altitudes varied among the participants. Some climbers, like Irwin from Colorado, live at 9,000 feet and climb 14ers regularly. There was no need for them to dramatically increase training for the climb. Others who live at sea level prepared rigorously.

KDA hired 109 Tanzanians to help carry belongings, set up camp, and cook along the way. The trek went through five ecological climate zones on the way to the summit.

In the mornings, the support crew would dance and sing, “Kilimanjaro” in Swahili. The song offers advice for the journey and repeats the Disney-made-famous Swahili phrase, Hakuna Matata, which means, “no troubles despite hardships.”

After the singing and dancing, the support crew prayed in Swahili for a safe and successful journey to the top.

On the first night, Irwin used his ice axe to dig holes to make a 15-by-25-yard Mancala board in the dirt. Another night, he and McLaughlin gathered rocks throughout the campsite and invited everyone to play the African board game Bao.

During another break, Irwin and McLaughlin jumped from one boulder to another yelling “Parkour! Parkour!” in reference to the television show, The Office.

On the third day, McLaughlin spiked a fever that vanished 12 hours later, so he soldiered on. On the fifth night, McLaughlin’s fever returned. The group set up camp at 15,200 feet, and one of the 22 climbers decided to remain at the camp instead of attempting the final ascent. McLaughlin felt so sick he barely said a word at dinner.

“We knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Hulick said. “But he sure as hell was going to try.”

‘Joy for a sunrise’

The kidney donors pose with arms outstretched | photo by Tom Racek of Summit Pointe ProductionsClad in as many as six layers, the group began the final ascent at midnight under an open, starry sky. Trekking poles tapped rhythmically along the path as the hikers’ breaths swirled visibly in their headlamp lights.

Each year, an estimated 35,000 people attempt to summit Kilimanjaro, but one-third to one-half of these climbers do not reach the peak. Weather conditions, health issues, and extreme altitude sickness can scuttle a summit attempt.

Altitude sickness is particularly common on the final ascent as climbers have approximately 49% of the oxygen they would have at sea level and may experience severe headaches, nausea, and dizziness as they move above 16,000 feet to reach the Summit Zone.

At 18,000 feet, McLaughlin knew that with his fever, he could not continue with the group. He informed Irwin of his painful decision to turn back and deputized him to take the group on without him.

The remaining 20 climbers fought to stay positive amid the last, grueling ascent.

“It got really, really cold, so many of us were waiting for the first hint of pink,” Hulick said. “We wanted to see the first glimpse of sunrise.”

Around 5:30 a.m. climber Chris Sullivan called out, “There it is!”

Everyone started to shout at the sight of first light. The cheers sent a cascade of whoops into the morning air from other groups farther down the mountain.

From that moment on, the remaining climbers knew they would make it. “The mountain erupted with joy for a sunrise, which is something that happens every day. But you don’t feel that connection to it every day like you do up there,” Hulick said.

The kidney donors pose at the trailhead of Kilimanjaro National Park | photo by Tom Racek of Summit Pointe ProductionsAbout an hour and a half later, the group reached the Uhuru Peak signpost at the summit.

Team members made an archway out of their poles to welcome the climbers from farther down the line.

“There were so many tears in people’s eyes as they got to the top and said, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,’” Irwin said.

The support crew and the KDA climbers sang “Kilimanjaro” together, repeating Hakuna Matata over and over again into the early morning fog.

Planning the next adventure

Awareness for kidney donations and KDA skyrocketed following the climb.

The membership of the group’s private Facebook page doubled to more than 1,000 members. Hulick opened Instagram one day to find a photo of a dentist in Rome, Italy, wearing a KDA shirt under his lab coat.

“I never expected people to feel such a strong sense of belonging,” she said. “Some people wear KDA gear almost exclusively.” The 22 donor-climbers, representing 18 different media markets across North America were featured on Good Morning America and in The Washington Post and more than 70 other media outlets.

More than 30 million people worldwide learned about the climb, and hundreds started the process to become living kidney donors.

The climb earned the organization more than $100,000, which will launch programs and initiatives for KDA over the next several years. Independently, McLaughlin is planning two more climbs for kidney donors, recipients, and transplant staff next year. He’ll make another attempt to summit Kilimanjaro on World Kidney Day 2023. Then, roughly 10 days later, he’s planning a trek to Everest’s South Base Camp at 17,598 feet in Nepal.

Although McLaughlin hopes to see the Kilimanjaro signpost in person, he knows last year’s trip was a success even at 18,000 feet. “The story is way bigger than any one person. It’s the collective experiences we had that allowed us to reach 30 million people,” he said.

The goals remain the same as the last climb: Show others what a living kidney donor can do and inspire others to become donors.

“If the story can impact more lives, that’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of us on a hike,” McLaughlin said. “All of us hear about donations through somebody’s story. I heard a story one day and that influenced one of the best decisions of my life. It’s had a ripple effect on so many lives in so many ways.”

Kidney donation facts

37 million adults — almost 15% of the adult population — have chronic kidney disease in the United States.

More than 100,000 people are waiting for their turn on the kidney transplant list. 13 people die waiting each day.

22,817 Americans received a kidney transplant in 2020. About one-third of these transplants came from living donors.

While living donors need to be over the age of 18, no one is too old to donate.

2022 data from the National Kidney Foundation.

Photos by Tom Racek of Summit Pointe Productions

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