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Former transplant nurse, organ donor conquers second mountain climb to raise awareness

Former transplant nurse, organ donor conquers second mountain climb to raise awareness

A year ago, she celebrated a major accomplishment. Cristina Fontana hiked the summit of Africa’s highest peak - Mount Kilimanjaro. Recently, she celebrated another victory-hiking Everest Base Camp.

By TJ Banes, Senior Journalist, IU Health,

It can be said that Cristina Fontana has been on a journey that began years ago. It can also be said that her journey continues with a focus on raising awareness for living organ donation.

During Donate Life Month, Fontana accomplished a major feat toward that passion. For the second time in two years, she joined a group of living organ donors and advocates to scale a mountain - not just any mountain. Last year, she took a 17-hour flight to Tanzania where she hiked to Uhuru Peak. The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest freestanding mountain is 19,341 feet above sea level.

Cristina Fontana reaching uhuru peak tanzania

This month, she took a 16-hour flight to South Asia, where she hiked 17,500 feet to Nepal’s Everest Base Camp.

“As I reflect back on this experience, I'm grateful for my body and health that allowed me to take on this challenge,” said Fontana. Only about 30 percent of the people who start out on the climb are able to complete it due to such challenges as altitude sickness and injuries. “To me, this is a reminder that we can achieve anything we set our minds to as long as we put in the hard work and stay true to our passions.”

Fontana’s passion is bringing attention to the need for organ donation. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), more than 100,000 people are on the transplant waiting list, and 13 people die each day waiting for a life-saving gift. Through sponsorship of mountain climbs, UNOs hopes to create awareness of the need for living organ donation.

For Fontana, it also creates awareness about life after organ donation. Her Kilimanjaro hike included a message: “I have one kidney and I made it to the top of Kilimanjaro.”

Born in Caracas, Venezuela Fontana recalls at the age of nine, her father was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. He died when she was 14. At the time, she wanted so badly to save his life by donating a kidney but age was an obstacle.

“His illness and death forever changed my life,” said Fontana, a resident of Zionsville, Ind. Later, her mother passed of complications from lung disease. She was on dialysis for four months and was not a candidate for transplant.

“The death of both my parents created a heightened sense of need for me to help others,” said Fontana.

Cristina Fontana as a kidney donor

That day came on Jan. 25, 2018 when she became a kidney donor. She didn’t know her recipient; she just knew someone needed her kidney. She later learned that “someone” was a 21-year-old Frankfort resident who had been on dialysis for three years awaiting transplant. Coincidentally, Spanish was his first language. The two became better acquainted following transplant.

“The idea of giving life to someone ignited my soul,” said Fontana. Prior to her kidney donation she worked as a nurse at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health and also as a radiation therapist at IU Health Methodist Hospital. Six months after the organ transplant, Fontana became a transplant living donor coordinator at IU Health University Hospital.

She recently changed careers working as a certified health coach and yoga instructor.

“My recent journey to Everest Base Camp was a dream of a lifetime that I had been preparing for both mentally and physically, for close to a year,” said Fontana. “I'm so proud of myself for taking on this incredible challenge and completing it, but more importantly, for doing it for a cause that's close to my heart - raising awareness on kidney donation and that donors can achieve outstanding accomplishments post donation.”

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