To say Commerce City resident Andrea Coleman is athletic might be a bit of an understatement.
She was a basketball and softball player through high school. When those faded away, she took to such things as running marathons and hiking up and down mountains.
Fifteen months ago, Coleman donated a kidney. Her uncle, Mike Davis, was the recipient. Coleman belongs to the Kidney Donor Athletes, a worldwide group of some 900 athletes. Twenty-two of them, including Coleman, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro earlier in March. Twenty – Coleman included – reached the summit.
“The mission is to show people that you can donate a kidney and still do all the active things you used to do,” she said. “People think if you donate an organ, your life will be impacted negatively. That’s not true.”
Davis has battled genetic kidney disease for several years. She is fine; he is doing well, too.
In advance of the trip, Coleman said some people hiked both weekends hiking. Others went for long runs.
“Athletes are loose people. If you take long walks, go for hikes, run marathons, you are up and moving,” Coleman said. “I never thought I’d climb Kilimanjaro missing one kidney.”
Seven and a half days
Coleman faced no surgery-related restrictions before the climb or during the summit. She hiked in the nearby mountains. She put dumbbells in her backpack, went to the Bison Ridge Recreation Center and worked out on a treadmill for an hour at a time.
“I can’t have Ibuprofen,” she said. “I’ve hiked 14ers before and had headaches and two Ibuprofen. But there were other altitude medicines we could take. I never had any ill effects. I was eating a lot of food I wasn’t familiar with, but there was nothing related to my surgery.”
In addition to the 20 athletes, Coleman said there were more than 100 “porters” whose job was to cook, feed and carry gear up the mountain. The climb up took 7 ½ days.
“We’d wake up around 6 a.m., and the porters would ask us if we wanted coffee or tea, some water to wash our faces. They fixed us breakfast. We packed our bags each day and left them outside our tents, and the porters picked them up and took them to our next campsite.”
A couple of hours later, the day’s climb began, usually about four to seven miles per effort.
“As we started climbing the porters were carrying the tents we had and were passing us on the trail,” Coleman laughed. “I thought we’d have to catch up with them. There was a familial feel. We greeted them and spoke Swahili with them.”
The porters brought out hot chocolate and popcorn during the evenings. The climbers played cards, too, before they nodded off to sleep.
“There was something terrific about the mountain every day,” Coleman said. “The first day, the temperature was 80 degrees. There were monkeys all over the place. The next day, there was gunk in the air. There wasn’t much to look at. We saw waterfalls and caves. Every day, there was something different. It was neat and interesting.”
On summit day – and after eating breakfast — the climbers hiked about three or four hours to the base camp, about 15,000 feet in elevation.
And ate some more.
“We had lunch. We rested. And then we had dinner about 4:00,” Coleman said. “We were in bed by 7 because we had to get up at 10:30. Some didn’t sleep at all. I had practiced breathing exercises because I knew I needed to sleep.
“And I slept a lot,” she added. “It was cold. I slept with more clothes on than I usually wear. I was wearing so many layers, it was hard to move. I looked like the kid in ‘A Christmas Story.’”
At 10:30, it was time to get up – and eat some more. The 22 climbers split into two groups, and the final ascent began at midnight, the official beginning of World Kidney Day. It took about seven hours to reach the peak.
“The wind was blowing, and it was dark. But the porters? They helped us. They were amazing,” Coleman said. “All we could see was this line of lights. About 5:30, the sun started to come up. We were above the clouds. The sun was bright red. It looked like a scene from ‘The Lion King.’ I had this moment of contentment. I couldn’t believe I was here doing this, that we were here, doing this. It was the most beautiful thing.”
The climbers had to go past a false peak – “there were glaciers all over the place, especially above Stella Point (the false peak)” — before they reached the summit.
Atop the mountain
Coleman and the other 19 who made the summit stayed for about 20 minutes.
“It was chaos at the top,” she said. “But at 19,500 feet, it’s not safe to stay up there for very long. The porters were trying to get us off the mountain as fast as they could.
“It was so neat,” Coleman added. “Very few people get to this final point. We started taking pictures. Some people were crying. Some carried their cameras. I thought my iPhone would work fine. The moment was amazing. “We should have 40 kidneys up here, but only 20 were here.”
Then it was time to go back down the mountain. Two and a half hours later, they made their first stop, which meant it was time to eat again. The rest of the descent covered about four miles, most of which was straight downhill. The groups reached the base camp at 7 p.m.
“There was a vibe at that last camp,” Coleman said. “It was joyful, kind of like going to a state tournament, winning and then going for pizza afterward.”
A four-mile hike the next day closed out the expedition. Local reporters – Coleman described the group as a “gaggle” – were at the bottom of the mountain to greet the groups and chronicle the effort. Park rangers used satellite radios to gather the press.
No one carried oxygen. If it was necessary, the guides sent the climbers back down the mountain.
Coleman took some time to reflect on the climb’s benefits, including a new “family.”
“I met a group of people. I gained more than I ever thought I would,” Coleman said. “My uncle has had a genetic kidney disease. But he is one of the most positive and generally gritty people I’ve ever met. I thought of him when things were tough, when the wind was blowing, when it was raining. He’s fought this his whole life.”
There are several so-called “One Kidney Clubs” in the country. The National Kidney Donation Organization website says more than 3,000 people are added to the national donation list every month. Thirteen people die every day while waiting for a transplant. The people on the transplant list total more than 100,000.
“We’ve done things that few people have done,” she added. “When we got to the top, it was the icing on the cake for the journey we’ve been on.”
Some of the climbers donated their kidneys to people who either weren’t related or weren’t known to the donors. Coleman called that “overwhelming.”
“I hope this shows people you can do everything and more after you donate,” Coleman said. “You can save someone else’s life in the process and live your life to the fullest. One hundred thousand people need kidneys. More people need kidneys than what’s available.
“Not everyone can donate. But there are so many ways you can impact people’s lives for the better,” Coleman concluded. “I can’t make the world change. I’m just a small person in a small town. But everyone can make someone’s life better – shoveling a sidewalk, volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients.
“The biggest message is this. If you can help someone, you should.”
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