Thrive by IU Health

April 11, 2022

Transplant advocate, organ donor, trains to climb Africa’s highest peak

IU Health University Hospital

Transplant advocate, organ donor, trains to climb Africa’s highest peak

Four years ago, Cristina Fontana donated her kidney to a stranger. Now, she is training to hike the summit of Africa’s highest peak – Mount Kilimanjaro. Why? She wants to bring attention to living kidney donation.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

It’s physically demanding. It’s emotionally demanding. The most seasoned hikers can experience altitude sickness and severe fatigue. It requires tent camping, adequate hydration and nutrition, and adapting to extreme temperature changes.

On March 12, Cristina Fontana will depart for a 17-hour flight to Tanzania where she will undertake one of the greatest challenges of her lifetime. She will hike to Uhuru Point – the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest freestanding mountain, 19,341 feet above sea level.

When she reaches the top, Fontana intends to hold a banner with a green ribbon, symbolic of kidney disease and organ donation. March is National Kidney Month and March 10, is World Kidney Day. The green ribbon represents something close to Fontana’s heart – the honor of donating a kidney to someone in need. It also represents the transplant patients in her care as a nurse at IU Health University Hospital.

Cristina Fontana

Fontana’s journey toward advocacy began at a young age. She was born in Caracas, Venezuela. At the age of nine, her father was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. He died when Fontana was 14. 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. Fifteen years ago, 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.

It’s estimated more than 100,000 people are awaiting life saving organ transplants; 85 percent of those waiting, are in need of a kidney. In the back of her mind, Fontana knew there would be a time when she would become a living donor.

That day came on Jan. 25, 2018. 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.

Both personally, and professionally she has seen the difference organ transplantation makes in the life of both the donor and the recipient. When her recipient told her she had changed his life, she responded: “Becoming a donor changed my life.”

Her donor’s body went into rejection approximately two years after his transplant. The reality of those challenges – faced every day by those with kidney disease –continues to propel Fontana to advocate and educate others about living kidney donation.

“What I can say for sure, is that I would donate my kidney all over again, if I had more to give. I had very high hopes and expectations regarding my medical care, surgery, recovery, and post-surgical outcomes. I do not share my story with all my patients, but I do with some. I hear how comforting it is to them to know that I have been where they are, it creates a special bond. I received the best care possible at IU Health and wish the same for my patients,” said Fontana, 53.

“I knew going into surgery that I was really going to be ok, and I would live a healthy, happy life with one kidney,” said Fontana. She was hospitalized overnight and within 12 weeks after surgery she was back to her regular routine. That includes yoga and hiking. Overtime, she became active with the Kidney Donor Athletes (KDA), a group committed to inspiring, supporting, and educating people about the experience of kidney donation.

Since transplant, Fontana, has completed a number of challenging hikes including, Machu-Picchu, more than 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains,

Rainbow Mountain, 17,060 feet above sea level, near Cusco, Peru, and Hawaii’s Waimea Canyon – 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep. She has also hiked U.S. National Parks - Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Zion.

Cristina Fontana

Fontana was initially chosen to join a select group of KDA athletes for the Kilimanjaro climb. When her family learned of the challenge they wanted to join her. “They were with me through my kidney donation, so it seemed right that they should be with me through this,” said Fontana. Her husband, Daniel Gomes, their son, Alex Gomes, and their daughter, Gabriela Gomes-Lueders, and her husband, Blake Lueders, will join her on the eight-day hike. The youngest of the group, Fontana’s son, is a college freshman. There are age restrictions for the hike. Fontana’s other son, Tomas Gomes, and his girlfriend Brianna Perl, will join them at the bottom of the mountain for the post hike celebration.

The group will carry 33-pound duffle bags with their supplies including nourishment, sleeping, and tent gear for eight days of camping. They will use lighter packs for day hiking. Fontana is taking her yoga mat for stretching along the trek. They will cross five ecosystems – beginning with a hot and dry climate and ending with freezing temperatures at the summit.

“We’ve been training and we’ve learned that breathing and pacing ourselves is the key to negotiating the climates and altitudes,” said Fontana. “I believe my secret weapon is hot yoga and taking care of my body. I hope in some way to inspire someone and to tell the world not to be scared to do something bold and crazy that your heart truly desires. It might bring blessings to your life and the lives of others.

“I have been honored to work alongside the staff at IU Health that helped me through my donation process. I am privileged to help educate, care for, and encourage other donors to pursue living kidney donation every single day through my job. My upcoming summit to Kilimanjaro is a different way to inspire donors and show that just because we are donors and only have one kidney, it does not mean we cannot live full healthy lives and achieve great things,” she said.

And about that banner with the green ribbon – It also has this message: “I have one kidney and made it to the top of Kilimanjaro.”

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