With a Rosary in his pocket, one kidney donor climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to help raise awareness about organ donation

June 13, 2023

Tom O’Driscoll joined a group of 32 organ donors, recipients, spouses, doctors, nurses and advocates who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on March 9, World Kidney Day. (Photo courtesy of Tom O’Driscoll)

SUGAR LAND — Tom O’Driscoll was running when a thought came to mind.

“Why do I spend so much time keeping my body fit?” he questioned. “And the first answer that came into my head was, “Because I want to look good. That was not a good answer and was vanity.”

“But a second thought came into my head, and I really got the feeling that the Holy Spirit was working within me. It was saying, ‘Maybe you are keeping your body healthy so you can help someone else who is unhealthy.’

“I can’t say that I’ve ever had mystical experiences before, except for that one,” O’Driscoll said.

That spiritual calling caused the Sugar Land resident to make two of the most unselfish decisions of his life.

That very same day in 2010, O’Driscoll ran home and contacted organ donor Chaya Lipschutz, a New Yorker and Orthodox Jewish woman he heard on the National Public Radio program “This American Life” a few weeks earlier. She talked of becoming a living organ donor by donating her kidney to a complete stranger.

After O’Driscoll’s call, Lipschutz helped to match him with Carolyn, the recipient of his first living organ donation — a kidney.

Carolyn, on dialysis at the time, had polycystic kidney disease for which there is no cure. Her sister also suffers from it, and her mom died from it.
Following the required physical tests and paperwork, surgery occurred in Los Angeles.

Carolyn, with a new kidney, now lives in Las Vegas.

For years, O’Driscoll’s closest friends didn’t know he had literally given of himself to help another. They found out when, over a decade later, O’Driscoll shared his kidney donation story because he planned to donate again.

This time, it would be a different stranger (who happens to also live in Las Vegas), and a portion of O’Driscoll’s liver would save the man’s life.
The February 2022 surgery in Los Angeles was a success.

“My left kidney is in a woman, and 60% of my Irish liver is in a Korean man,” he said. “I’m spread out.”

The lifelong Catholic and parishioner of St. Laurence Catholic Church in Sugar Land said his faith in God has led the way during his journey. He talked about St. John Paul II’s Law of Giving which says that “your being increases in the measure that you give it away.”

“By being an organ donor and by giving away two organs, I’m as much a beneficiary as the recipients, and it makes me feel so grateful that I was able to do that,” O’Driscoll said. “And by doing this, I saved two lives.”

He references 1 Corinthians when he notes that all people have gifts to offer in this world.

“’There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone,’” he quoted. Priests devote themselves to the church and its congregation. O’Driscoll’s niece adopted four children with special needs.
And O’Driscoll was healthy and unafraid of surgeries, so why not become an organ donor while he himself is alive, he thought.

Now, his focus is on convincing others to do the same. To bring awareness to living organ donations, O’Driscoll, 59, did something unconventional.
He took his message to the mountaintop.

Earlier this year, he joined a group of 32 organ donors, recipients, spouses, doctors, nurses and advocates who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. It was organized by the nonprofit Living Donor Adventures, of which O’Driscoll is the first president.

The group reached the peak of Africa’s tallest mountain on March 9, World Kidney Day.

O’Driscoll’s faith followed him on the trek.

“I carried up the mountain my Rosary in my left pocket,” he said. “I said lots of Hail Marys, and on Sunday, when we were climbing, I went off by myself and said a full Rosary.
“I got really emotional getting to the top and thinking about why we were there and being grateful that I was able to make it and share the experience with other donors,” he said.

Among trip sponsors was United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit organization that manages the Organ Procurement and Transportation Network in the United States.

The climb, which took 6½ days to go up (altitude challenges) and 1½ days to come down, required no special equipment, “just a good pair of boots.” They hiked about five miles each day.

It was not the first time this 10-time Ironman finisher had been challenged.

“I completed all 10 of my Ironman races with only one kidney, and I completed my 10th Ironman race less than nine months after my liver donation surgery,” O’Driscoll said.
Which brings him to another message he wants to spread.

“It’s my goal to show everyone that saving a life by becoming a living organ donor in no way limits one’s health or fitness,” he said. “I’m not the least bit harmed in doing this. In fact, I’m doing Ironman triathlons and climbing mountains.”

Media coverage in the U.S. and Tanzania has brought attention to the cause. One reporter who interviewed the team before their climb in Africa will soon arrive in America to report on how a kidney registry works because there is no such registry in Tanzania.

“I like to view organ donation as an example of Christ’s radical love. Christ, of course, suffered and died for us. He was totally innocent and yet was persecuted, suffered and died,” O’Driscoll said. “I’m totally healthy, but no doubt about it that there is something radical about saying, ‘Go ahead and take my kidney and part of my liver.”

Connor O’Driscoll, Tom’s son, said that the fact his father is a double organ donor is an incredibly rare occurrence in the U.S.

“For his first donation, the kidney donation, I was very young and don’t remember it at all happening. When I was eventually informed of it, I remember thinking it was so cool,” Connor said.

“Mostly, since I was young, I just thought it was cool that an organ could even be donated to someone else. Obviously, as I grew up and then even became directly involved with my father’s second donation, going with him to California for the surgery, I now understand how generous and selfless he was.”

Connor said that it is still hard for him to comprehend that his dad has had two different surgeries in which he’s given a whole kidney and the majority of his liver.

“I’m very proud of him doing so, and even prouder of him becoming an advocate for organ donations, helping spread the word and perhaps influencing others to become organ donors,” Connor added.