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Vermont Kidney Donor Summits Mount Kilimanjaro to Raise Awareness of Need for Organs

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Rebekah Thomas atop Mount Kilimanjaro - COURTESY
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  • Rebekah Thomas atop Mount Kilimanjaro

In early March, Rebekah Thomas made it to the top of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro. She's one of thousands who will summit Africa's tallest peak this year.

But Thomas, 48, successfully completed the trek after donating two organs to strangers: part of her liver in July 2019 and one of her kidneys in September 2020.

A teacher at J.J. Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Thomas was one of about 20 kidney donors from around the country who gathered in Tanzania for the trek. The idea of the group is "to demonstrate that you can donate an organ and still do all of the sports that you did before," said Thomas, a long-distance runner.

"Because that's something that kind of scares people from wanting to be a donor, as they think that it's going to limit their own quality of life," Thomas explained. "And so, we're just kind of out to show people that it doesn't limit it. And, in fact, it enhances it."

She's spreading the word about the importance of living donations and the urgent need for them. April is National Donate Life Month, and Wednesday, April 6, is Donate Life Living Donor Day.

Several years ago, Thomas taught a student who needed a liver and kidney but hadn't gotten the organs through the donor registry. The young woman got extremely sick but survived after her father donated part of his liver and a family friend donated a kidney.

Thomas began thinking about what she would do if someone asked for an organ donation, and she started the process of becoming a living donor in 2018. She donated a kidney in 2020. Three months later, she returned to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for a checkup and, while there, had lunch with the man who received the organ.

"He was laughing," Thomas recalled. "He looked healthy. He had returned to work. He was running around with his grandkids. It just kind of blows your mind that the human body can do that."

As for the young Burlington girl who inspired Thomas' donations, she "has graduated from nursing school ... [and] works in a transplant hospital," Thomas said.

"Medicine is amazing," Thomas said with a laugh. "Science and medicine."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Life Lessons"