Bobby McLaughlin has had previous invitations to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, but something always led him to turn them down.
Until now. The Ballard resident and 21 other kidney donors, all members of Kidney Donor Athletes, are currently scaling Africa’s highest peak as part of the organization’s campaign to raise awareness of the importance of kidney donations and demonstrate that being a kidney donor does not mean giving up adventures.
“It’s ironic or not ironic, I’ve turned down other opportunities to climb Kilimanjaro because it didn’t quite fit with the timing for my life, and I’m actually really grateful now that this will be my first to do it this way,” McLaughlin said in January. “No offense to my friends who invited me before, but this will be a powerful, powerful experience.”
Beginning a new journey
McLaughlin started his journey to kidney donation and Mount Kilimanjaro accidentally in 2016 after he fractured his wrist in a bad bike crash. He didn’t know that accident would change his life.
“There’s a lot of times in life where things happen where we might not realize the chain of events of things unfolding, and I didn’t realize at the time, so it went from a really bad bike crash to the best one ever,” McLaughlin said.
He said all he remembers after breaking his wrist in the crash is the immense pain. At the hospital he was told the injury was so severe that it required surgery to repair.
When he came out of surgery, the surgeon informed him his injury was worse than expected, and bone and tissue from a donor was needed to fix it.
Afterward, he was able to exchange communications with the donor family.
“And that was a really powerful experience for me,” he said.
Shortly after that, he met a woman who was a living kidney donor and heard about her experience and how transformational it was for her. He also met her recipient, as well.
The exchange was so meaningful that afterward he called the University of Washington and made an appointment to see if he qualified to be a kidney donor, beginning the extensive six- to eight-month process.
After a series of health checks and exams, McLaughlin was cleared in the summer of 2018, and on Jan. 2, 2019, his surgery was complete.
“It was really great. It was really straight forward and simple for me,” he said.
It was also an easy decision to make.
“I’ve always been one to want to help people in whatever way that I could, and I’ve been most fortunate in my life and my active lifestyle,” McLaughlin said.
After meeting the woman who donated her kidney and learning more about the process, McLaughlin didn’t think twice about donating one of his.
“I had two of them and somebody else needs one of them, and why wouldn’t I do that,” he asked. “Why wouldn’t we do that? Why wouldn’t we do this?”
McLaughlin said he has always been an active, athletic person — he played soccer in high school and college, including Seattle Pacific University. Not only had his healthy lifestyle benefited him when he applied to become a kidney donor, after speaking with many donors about their experiences prior to his own surgery, McLaughlin learned that, because he was physically fit, active and in good health prior to the surgery, there was no reason he would have to change that part of his lifestyle afterward.
“So 12 days after, I was able to do my first hike, although it was not a super hard one or anything like that,” he said.
In April of that year, three months after his surgery, McLaughlin climbed his first 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado and ran a marathon eight months after his surgery.
“It’s been really cool to show after donating my kidney that all of these things are still possible to donors,” he said, adding that is a key mission for Kidney Donor Athletes, for which he is president.
McLaughlin said what many people don’t know, including himself before learning more about kidney donation, is that the body can survive with only one kidney. When a healthy person donates a kidney, the other remaining kidney grows to compensate for the loss of the other.
McLaughlin said the adjustment period while the kidney is growing is two years, but after that the donor’s kidney function is back to normal, with the organ cleaning and filtering the blood as intended.
“Our bodies are amazing,” McLaughlin said. “And now I’m going to go stand on the top of Africa and share the message that [kidney donors] can do whatever you want in your life afterwards.”
A trek up a mountain
McLaughlin said the idea of a group expedition up Mount Kilimanjaro originated during a virtual Yahtzee tournament among kidney donors. He said a couple who participated told everyone they were planning an anniversary trip up the African peak and invited everyone to join them.
“It didn’t take us long to say, ‘OK, we’re in,’ ” McLaughlin said.
From there, the group grew to include other members of his organization.
He said, at that time, it occurred to the group that by sharing their plans with the public, as well as documenting the trip itself, they had a “huge opportunity” to share the message of what is possible post donation and dispel the myth that kidney donors can’t live healthy, active lives afterward.
“Most of us would say we’re even more healthy after donating, and we lead a more active and healthy life after donating, and that would be true for me, as well,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin and the rest of the climbing party began their eight-day trek this week and will reach the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on March 10, which is also World Kidney Day.
“There’s shorter routes up Kilimanjaro, but the success rate from this longer route is higher, which is why we’re doing it,” he said, adding the expedition will be led by Embark Exploration Company out of Portland, Oregon.
McLaughlin said he typically trained two to three times a week and has climbed other mountains in preparation for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. In Washington, the highest he has climbed is Mount Adams, at 12,200 feet, but has climbed up to 14,000 in Colorado.
Not only will this trip demonstrate to people that kidney donors can do anything, even climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it is exciting to McLaughlin as an athlete.
“I’m just completely hooked on getting high up,” the former soccer player said. “I totally love it. I love the challenge of it, the reward of it. It fills me with energy every time I go.”
The trip is important to Kidney Donor Athletes because it part of a fundraising campaign to support the group’s three-year strategic plan of education and advocacy for kidney donation. McLaughlin said roughly 100,000 people are on a waiting list to receive a kidney transplant to improve or save their lives.
To learn more about Kidney Donor Athletes and the climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, visit https://kidneydonorathlete.org/one-kidney-kili-climb.
People can donate to Kidney Donor Athletes’ fundraiser by going to https://www.gofundme.com/f/kdakiliclimb2022.
To learn more about kidney donation, visit https://kidneydonorathlete.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Fact-Sheet_Living-Kidney-Donors.pdf.