Why does Michelle MacKinnon fly across Canada every year to walk 100 kilometres over a three day weekend? She needs to do something big. Something really big. In honour of her son David. Because the very day of his kidney transplant, the very morning she was scheduled to give him her left kidney, David had a stroke and died from the complications of kidney disease. He was 18 years old.
It’s been six years since then. And Michelle has been doing the annual Kidney March in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of Alberta ever since. “Every person at Kidney March understands everything we have gone through – in a way that no one else can,” she says. “The March isn’t going to bring David back. But I do it with my son Andrew to honour David, and every other kidney patient in Canada.” Michelle lives in Niagra Falls, Ontario with her husband Dave, and 23-year-old Andrew. “That first year, I cried and cried, meeting all of those amazing people. It is absolutely beautiful there. Gorgeous scenery. Beautiful people,” she smiles.
As is often the case with chronic diseases, there’s determined spirit in the kidney community – a determination you can see in Michelle MacKinnon’s eyes. “I want to fight so fiercely,” she says. “It’s all I have left of David. And it is helping me heal.” That determination led Michelle and her husband to keep their names on the list as living kidney donors. “The day David died, I said to the doctor, I am donating my kidney anyway. There’s someone who needs it as much as he did.”
In the spring of 2015 Michelle saw a note on Facebook about a two-year-old boy needing a kidney. His had been removed when he was just a few weeks old because they had massive cysts that were crushing his other organs. “He was on dialysis, and running out of time. I felt an instant connection with his mom, messaged her, and, because I had all the testing already, the process went more quickly,” she recalls. On May 13, 2015, Michelle was back in a hospital gown, all prepped for surgery. And this time, she was able to give the gift of life. “He’s doing great. We facetimed on the two year anniversary of his kidney transplant,” she says. “And, we are flying back again for Kidney March. It started as a one-time thing. It’s turned into a family,” she laughs.
Kidney March 2017 takes place from September 8 – 10, starting out just south of Calgary, and winding its way west into Kananaskis Country beside the Rocky Mountains, and back, ending up at the top of Canada Olympic Park. 300 marchers and crew walk the final kilometre arm-in-arm, led by Royal Canadian Mounted police on horseback into a cheering crowd of family and friends. “That’s why Kidney March is powerful,” Michelle says. “It’s an army of people who are making it better. Sometimes, you feel so alone. At Kidney March, you realize, you aren’t.”