Shannon Catalano Ascends to New Heights as a Kidney Donor

Plano resident Shannon Catalano wants the world to know that being a kidney donor doesn’t mean you can’t do big things.  To prove her point, she and 21 other kidney donors plan to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro next March in recognition of World Kidney Day. In the process they hope to raise awareness for kidney donation and show others how much is possible.

“I think the big question that a lot of people have is can you live a normal life after donation,” she says. “We’re just trying to prove to the world that, yes you can.”

Catalano has long had a personal connection to kidney donation.  When she was 11 years old, her brother was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes. As the family began to learn more about the disease, they realized that it could wreck his kidney in time. Since she was his only sibling, Catalano always knew that she would donate hers if he ever needed it. But she never would.

Two decades later, Catalano says she was looking to make big changes in her life. She’d been on the national bone marrow registry list for 15 years when she finally received a call that she was a match. When the procedure ultimately fell through, she was devastated.  Then her mind turned back to donating her kidney.

“Most of the kidney donors that I’ve met have this zest for life.”

She ended up donating it to a stranger nearly four years ago.  However, before going through with the procedure, she felt compelled to call her brother and tell him she would be giving away “his kidney.” It was a difficult conversation for her because inside she’d always loved the idea of being her brother’s hero. Of course, her brother never considered the kidney his, and was not upset in the least.  

Catalano says the donation experience ending up being one of the best things in her life. She says she thinks part of that may have been the timing.  She was turning 40 and did not have any children.

I feel like, as a woman, people kind of expect you to give life, so I felt this was kind of my way of giving life,” she says.

The recovery was slightly more difficult than expected, but nothing consequential in the grand scheme of things. Her only disappointment was that the kidney recipient never reached out to her. She was hoping to make a connection with her.  Instead, the people she ended up connecting with were fellow kidney donors. Inspired by a person in Colorado who had founded a similar organization, Catalano founded a local chapter of the One Kidney Club, which brings fellow donors together.

“Most of the kidney donors that I’ve met have this zest for life,” she says. “I think that also comes with the responsibility of having to take care of yourself so that you don’t end up in the same boat eventually.”

Over time, Catalano discovered a group called Kidney Donor Athletes.  She had decided that she wanted to summit Mount Kilimanjaro and posted to the group’s message board asking for tips. That got her connected with a person who had done it.  Then another member expressed interest.  Before long, so many people wanted to climb the mountain it morphed into an advocacy event.  The group has even hired a videographer to document the event, which will take eight days to complete.

After an application process, 22 members qualified for the adventure.  Now they are all training and preparing for physical challenges they will face. 

Catalano is no stranger to physical challenges.  She has ridden her bike across the country and ascended to 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. However, climbing to 19,341 feet will be a difficult test. She is training as best she can at home, though it is obviously hard to replicate mountainous terrain in the prairies of Texas.  Her husband will be joining her too, and she can’t wait to show the world what they can do.

“For a lot of us, we’re stretching our limits to show that we’re going to do big things with our lives after donation,” she says. “I feel like I have lived such a blessed life and I want to make a difference.”

To learn more about Kidney Donor Athletes and help fund their mountain climbing awareness campaign, visit kidneydonarathletes.org and click on the One Kidney Kili Climb link.

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