From near death to unstoppable, thanks to donated blood and organs

May 31, 2024
Blood and organ recipient smiling outdoors

Gratitude for her donors drives Kathleen Zavarise to both serve others and seek out adventures, from ziplining to dragon boat racing 

Not much more than a year ago, Kathleen Zavarise was dividing most of her time between a hospital bed in her dining room, and rooms in actual hospitals. 

Most of her outings were for dialysis. She needed the procedure five times a week, as her kidneys could no longer clear her blood of toxins and waste. But there were also trips to the hospital by ambulance, for life-threatening crises related to organ failure. And when she was at home, she didn’t have the energy to do much more than watch TV.  

What was causing Kathleen’s organs to fail wasn’t entirely clear, and still isn’t. But doctors knew she desperately needed both a kidney transplant and a liver transplant. They also feared a donor wouldn’t be found in time. 

“I was told to get my affairs in order, and spend time with my family, because I was going to die,” she says. “I was definitely not prepared to hear that.” 

The anxious wait for organ transplant was punctuated by many, many blood transfusions. 

“It started off once a month, then once a week, and then at the end it was every couple of days,” Kathleen recalls. She also had emergency transfusions — several bags of blood each time, she remembers — after blood tests at dialysis appointments showed dangerously low levels of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen through the body.  

“Dialysis and blood transfusions were keeping me alive long enough to get the transplant,” she says. 

Honouring an organ donor and blood donors through adventure and service 

Fast forward to today, and Kathleen’s life could not be more different. In March 2023, in a surgery that required even more blood transfusions, she received a new liver and kidney from a deceased donor. And she is now very, very busy making up for lost time.  

“My kids call me, and the first thing they say is, ‘Where are you now?’” says Kathleen, who shares two adult daughters with her husband, Rocco.  “Because I’m never home. I’m always out doing something.” 

Organ recipient in red suit suspended from top of CN Tower by a cable, city view below
The CN Tower EdgeWalk was just one of Kathleen Zavarise’s many adventures in the year following her organ transplant.

It’s almost as if she’s determined to live for two: herself, and the organ donor whose liver and kidney she carries.  

Since March 2023, Kathleen has been rock climbing, indoor skydiving and ziplining, none of which she’d tried before her illness. She’s even braved the EdgeWalk — a hands-free walk along the edge of the CN Tower’s main pod, 356 metres above the ground. Her younger daughter, Maddie, often joins her on her adventures. 

She’s testing her physical limits on the water, too. Having never picked up a paddle before, Kathleen joined a dragon boat team made up of transplant recipients, living organ donors and other supporters of organ donation. This summer, she’s also heading to the Canadian Transplant Games — a celebration of sport for transplant recipients across the country — to compete in pickleball, lawn bowling, speed walking and more.  

“I treat every day as a gift, a chance to make a difference and live with purpose,” Kathleen says, “to honour the legacy of my organ donor, as well as my blood donors.” 

Organ recipient in front of waterfall wearing shirt that says “I’m living with a kidney transplant and rocking it.
Since receiving a new kidney and liver from a deceased organ donor, Kathleen Zavarise helps educate others about the impact of organ donation.

When she’s not having adventures, you’ll find Kathleen serving others. That includes volunteering in the dialysis facility she once attended for treatment. She and Maddie also work with several organizations that are raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Her story brings hope to those waiting for transplant, and inspires others to register their intent to donate organs and tissues.  

Kathleen also hopes it comforts the families of those who have already donated in death. It’s never far from her mind that her own transplant was made possible by another family’s terrible loss.  

‘I don’t take a sunrise for granted anymore’ 

In March 2024, Kathleen celebrated the first anniversary of her transplant with a trip to Florida. She and her family are grinning from ear to ear in the photos, arms linked with Disney characters and swimming in the water with dolphins. But the morning of the anniversary itself was more subdued and private.   

“I got up early to watch the sun rise, because I can,” says Kathleen, her voice breaking a little, “and just to say thanks. To say a prayer of thanks to everybody — my donor, their family, my family, my friends. I don’t take a sunrise for granted anymore.” 

Blood and organ recipient with husband and two adult daughters, with Donald Duck mascot at Disneyworld
Kathleen Zavarise celebrated the first anniversary of her organ transplant by travelling to Florida with her husband and daughters.

‘I didn’t realize the amount of donated blood used every single day’ 

Kathleen’s eldest daughter, Corina, also marked the anniversary in a special way that month: by pushing past a fear of needles to donate blood for the first time. Employees at the donor centre “really took care of me,” Corina says. “It was a great experience.” 

Gratitude for her mother’s donors was a big motivator for that first blood donation. Because of them, Kathleen “got to watch me finish university, and step into my career,” Corina says. “A lot of big moments in my life that she wasn’t supposed to be there [for], she was.”  

A woman smiling and pointing at her arm bandage while flexing
Kathleen Zavarise’s daughter Corina was inspired to start donating blood after blood and organ donors helped save her mother’s life.

Her family’s experience also opened Corina’s eyes to the need for blood generally.  

“I didn’t realize the amount of donated blood used every single day, whether it’s saving people in traumatic situations, or in surgeries, or for medications,” Corina says. “I would say that if you’re thinking about donating blood, it’s so easy, and it’s so meaningful.” 

Kathleen feels all of that deeply, as a recipient who has also donated blood. In fact, as high school sweethearts, she and Rocco were both part of their school’s blood donor club.  Looking back, she just wishes she’d stuck with it longer. 

“It was just one of those things that I never really got to,” she says, “which is horrible, and I feel bad now in hindsight.” 

These days, she knows better than to put off anything important. 

“Nobody knows if there’s a tomorrow, but in my case, there almost wasn’t,” she says. “So I’m not going to waste one minute of that time.” 

Thank you to all the recipients who have shared their stories with us for National Blood Donor Week 2024. Visit to read more stories and join our celebration of donors.


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