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Bright, Ont. woman treks up Mt. Kilimanjaro to promote kidney donation awareness

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Mary McFarlane is happy to be home after her two week long trip in Tanzania.

“I was going to meet a group of strangers, so just that trip to the airport, I did ask my friend to take me home. I [didn’t] want to do this without her because we normally do all our travel stuff together,” McFarlane told CTV News.

It wasn't a typical trip for McFarlane.

Along with 13 other people from around the world, the Bright, Ont. woman trekked up Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness for a cause close to her heart: living kidney donation.

“We had a number [of people] who were direct donors either to one their sons, a couple of their family members, friends, things like that,” she said. “But we also had a group of non-direct donors who essentially donated to complete strangers, and I was part of that group.”

McFarlane made the decision to donate her kidney in 2018, getting inspiration from her husband Mark who was diagnosed with kidney failure at the age of 20.

The both of them now proudly share the same scar.

“You can live exactly the way you were before, and that message needed to get out more,” McFarlane said.

Following her donation, McFarlane joined the Kidney Donor Athletes (KDA), a group whose mission is to educate people on kidney donation and to increase the number of living donors.

“There's more than 100,000 people in the U.S. and Canada waiting on a life saving kidney donation,” said board member, Brian Clapp. “All of our climbers were ready to create awareness around you can be healthy and active and do all that you did before donation.”

That's where McFarlane discovered the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with other people who had donated a kidney.

“We were told very clearly that we are all a family from this point forward, so we're working together as a team to get there.”

MacFarlane said it was one of the most gruelling and challenging experiences of her life.

“Barranco Wall was a very challenging day for me because of the height stuff, I thought I had prepared myself,” she said. “It was worse than I thought it would be.”

It was day six of the journey when McFarlane started to feel unwell.

“I got dizzy. I fell into the person behind me apparently, I don't remember anything. They had to pull me down and I didn't get to join the team at the top, but 12 of them pushed on. As much as I was a bit disappointed I couldn’t join them at the top, I am happy I made it almost to the top and the experience of hiking everyday withy the group was amazing.”

Clapp said the climb was a peer fundraising effort.

“So in addition to creating awareness, we used this as an opportunity through our local network and our friends and family to solicit donations,” he said. “And the donations go to support the work of Kidney Donor Athletes, which is really to create a community of donors and to create awareness around the need for donation and to create more options and opportunities for active people to do it.”

McFarlane said the experience was also educational and she learned a lot about the differences between kidney donation in Canada and the U.S.

“There were people from the States in the group and we got to discuss kidney donation options in our respective countries. There’s different follow up from my understanding. The transplant coordinators, not that they don’t want to have time for you here, but they're just so overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients that they're dealing with that there's not that same follow up for concerns or questions or anything along the way. But I mean, even just having the opportunity to connect with other donors, at least to get them that piece that we are missing here.”

While the climb is over, her work to shed light on kidney donation is far from being finished.

“There's a lot of American programs that connect donors to each other,” she said. “We just don't have the same kind of thing in Canada so I’m hoping to bring it more to people here.”

Clapp says KDA aims to branch out more in Canada and will work with McFarlane and others to develop resources and planned events for Canadian donors and donees.

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