February 14, 2024

Living kidney donors prepare to hike highest mountain in Africa

Taylor Duke, left, and Natasha Irish are preparing to hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
Taylor Duke, left, and Natasha Irish preparing to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Milwaukee-area women hope to raise awareness for living organ donation

MADISON, Wis. – As a college student volunteering for the summer at an orphanage in Tanzania in 2006, Natasha Irish would marvel at Mt. Kilimanjaro and wonder, “Who would be crazy enough to climb that for fun?”

Eighteen years later, she is, but she won’t climb alone.

Irish will join a group of 13 other hikers who are all living kidney donors. Irish and two other members of the group donated a kidney through the UW Health Transplant Center. Irish recently joined one of her fellow donors, Taylor Duke, for a short hike in Waukesha County.

The women have only met in person once before, but share an enduring bond through their experiences donating a kidney to a stranger.

“It just felt natural,” Irish said. “Donating a kidney to someone who needed it didn’t hinder my life, it enhanced it.”

Irish was inspired to donate in May 2022, when she saw a social media post about a woman in her community with polycystic kidney disease who was looking for a donor. Irish contacted the UW Health Transplant Center and after a comprehensive physical and mental evaluation, learned she wasn’t a perfect match for her intended recipient. However, she could still donate to the woman through the National Kidney Registry. It is a network that connects living donors to compatible recipients. These paired kidney exchanges take place when a donor and recipient have different blood types or are not a good match for other reasons, according to Scot Johnson, living donation program manager, UW Health Transplant Center.

“When someone isn’t a perfect match for the person they wish to donate to, the National Kidney Registry enables us to expand the pool of potential recipients,” he said. “This allows for better matching and therefore lower risk of rejection.”

There are more than 88,000 people nationwide on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, making living donation all the more important, he said.

“A kidney from a living donor often lasts much longer than a kidney from a deceased donor, making living donation an incredible, lifesaving gift,” Johnson said.

When Irish donated in January 2023, her kidney went to a stranger in Eau Claire. This moved her initial intended recipient near the top on the kidney transplant list, who ultimately received a kidney in April 2023, and the two women remain in contact.

“Her story moved me, and I’m honored to have helped her return to normal life,” Irish said. “Choosing to become a donor was an easy ‘yes’ for me.”

It was also an easy yes for Taylor Duke, who became a living donor in January 2023. As a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, Duke lives an active lifestyle and is committed to serving others. She saw donation as an extension of that service.

“I really appreciate how healthy I’ve been, and I wanted to share that health with someone else,” she said. “It felt right.”

While she was working as a phlebotomist at UnityPoint Health – Meriter in 2022, Duke met a member of the UW Organ and Tissue Donation team who explained living donation. Duke went through the evaluation process over that summer and was approved to be a living kidney donor shortly before Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving, she found out she was matched and was scheduled for surgery in January 2023. While she did not know her intended recipient before donating, Duke has since connected with the woman who received her kidney.

“We are about the same age, and it has been so gratifying to see her fully enjoy life again,” Duke said. “The point was to help someone, to change a life, not for a pat on the back.”

Shortly before her surgery, Duke learned about the nonprofit Kidney Donor Athletes. The group was founded in 2018 to educate people about the experience of kidney donation and to support donors. The group organized a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2022, dubbing it the One Kidney Climb, to demonstrate that donors can continue to live an active life with a single kidney. When Duke read about that trip, she couldn’t wait to sign up.

“Donating has empowered me to take on challenges I would not have considered before donating,” she said.

The climb will be a challenge, taking the group to nearly 20,000 feet of elevation over the course of eight days. Duke and Irish leaned on each other in training and plan to do the same throughout the climb. The group intends to reach the summit on March 14, which is World Kidney Day.

“I think we’ll be so relieved to make it to the summit,” Irish said. “I’ll be proud to show more people that you can live a normal life after donating; it won’t slow you down.”