It’s a quiet day in Flowery Branch as resident Natalie Nuce throws a tennis ball for her dog, Sabi. She’s working from home and, thanks to clear skies, she plans to visit Lake Lanier later in the day.
Despite being a living organ donor, Nuce lives a peaceful life devoid of conflict; she hikes the Appalachians and boats the lake water unimpeded by having only a single kidney.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, kidney donation poses minimal health risks; donors’ long-term survival rates are akin to non-donors, and the risk of future kidney failure appears in only a small percentage of those who give.
To showcase how little donating the organ has affected her own health, Nuce is heading to Tanzania with 21 fellow members of Kidney Donor Athletes later this month to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on World Kidney Day, March 10, 2022.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 97,000 people in the U.S. are on waiting lists for kidney transplants. Misinformation and skepticism has led to an extreme shortage in donors, and 13 people die everyday waiting for a kidney transplant.
The Mt. Kilimanjaro One Kidney Climb aims to raise awareness about these issues by showcasing that donors can not only live normal lives — they can even pull off extreme feats of athleticism.
“The biggest thing that we want people to understand and know is that you can live a normal, active life as a living kidney donor,” Nuce said. “The majority of the time, people go on to live normal lives and can be active. I’m definitely an example of that. I’m just over 18 months post-op and in the best shape of my life.”
Mt. Kilimanjaro — a dormant volcano with an elevation of 19,341 feet —is the tallest freestanding peak in Africa. The group will be able to reach the summit without ropes or harnesses, but the mountain’s high altitude means the KDA members will be challenged by low oxygen levels.
Mt. Kilimanjaro is also notorious for its intense winds. The group will embark at midnight and may have to deal with harsh weather conditions. To prepare, Nuce spends most of her weekends hiking five- to six-hour treks with weighted packs while using an exercise bike to build cardio endurance and core strength.
“I wanted to do something that was kind of, not commemorative, but that would stretch me and push me,” she said.
It seems like an extreme way of raising awareness, but Nuce felt compelled to join the climb after seeing firsthand the impact a donation can have.
In July 2020, Nuce donated her kidney to Annabelle Whitaker, the daughter of her friends Heather and Neil Whitaker, who was diagnosed with stage 5 kidney disease after getting dizzy at school. Learning they weren’t compatible matches, her parents took to social media to make their need known.
It wasn’t long before Nuce was taking a compatibility screening and preparing for the donation.
“They’re the kinds of parents that would go to any lengths for their child,” Nuce said. “Unfortunately, neither Heather nor Neil were matches. They would have donated their kidneys in a heartbeat, but they weren’t candidates.”
Nuce met the Whitakers while working with 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio, an organization that facilitates service dog training and placement for individuals with disabilities like 23-year-old Annabelle, who has Smith-Magenis syndrome — a complex developmental disorder affecting multiple organ systems of the body, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
The fact that the Whitakers lived in Georgia but traveled to Ohio for the sake of their daughter stuck out to Nuce.
They bonded over a shared love for the Georgia Bulldogs and the state itself, Nuce having attended the University of Georgia and Neil walking in with a Georgia Bulldogs pullover — a chance encounter that led to a long-term friendship.
Annabelle still faces unique challenges and health complications due to SMS, but with a new kidney, she’s able to continue living her life.
Like Annabelle, each of the 97,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list have unique stories and loved ones of their own — a realization that drove Nuce to a life of activism. She now sits on the KDA board of directors and has dedicated herself to the cause.
“The other thing I didn’t know in donating the kidney is that I would feel a sense of responsibility to advocate for living donation,” Nuce said. “I was trying to help my friends’ kid, so that’s what I thought I was doing. Then I realized: I feel a responsibility to spread the word.”
Although she still has time to train, Nuce feels more than ready to tackle Kilimanjaro. She mentions nerves of excitement and is ready to challenge herself for a powerful cause.
“I feel pretty confident,” she said. “I’d be ready to go tomorrow.”
For more information on KDA and ways to support the cause, visit kidneydonorathlete.org.
Those interested in donating to KDA or supporting them in other ways can visit their website for more information. Additional details on kidney donation can be found on the KDA website or by visiting www.kidney.org.