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A gift from within

Vancouver's Eileen Zheng donated one of her own kidneys to her mother; both women are well as she cycles across Canada
Eileen Zheng is bicycling across Canada to raise awareness and funds for organ donation, July 12, 2016. Darren Taylor/SooToday

Eileen Zheng of Vancouver is close to her mother.

Closer than many people are to their mothers, in a way.

Zheng's mother, Wei Zhang, accepted the gift of Zheng's left kidney on Mother's Day in May, 2014, nearly a decade after resisting repeated offers from her daughter to donate one of her own kidneys to her, and after years of dialysis treatments.

"We're closer than ever, because I've always been a piece of her and now she literally has a piece of me," Zheng smiled, speaking to SooToday Tuesday.

Zheng, 28, is a Vancouver School Board administrator currently using her summer vacation to bicycle across Canada to raise awareness and funds for organ and tissue donation, in a campaign called a Gift From Within.

She is bicycling across the country accompanied by her friend and 'wingman' Robert Sam ("in case there are bears," she laughed). 

"My Mom actually taught me how to ride a bicycle," Zheng said, adding that is her fondest childhood memory.

"She taught me that, she gave that gift to me and now I can use it to help others."

"There are so many people waiting for transplants…and this (kidney disease and other diseases) could happen to anyone," Zheng said.

"Even if you live a healthy lifestyle it can still happen, so I would highly suggest people become donors."

"She (Zheng's mother) wouldn't accept it (the offer of one of her daughter's kidneys) because she thought my own health would deteriorate, she thought I wouldn't be able to continue biking and all the sports I do, she said I was really young and didn't have children, she thought it would change my life."

That worried Zheng.

"I saw what happened to my Grandpa because he passed away at 64 and my Mom is 61 this year, and I didn't want to see the same thing happen to her, I thought if something isn't done soon I knew she would pass away soon."

"I told her 'you have this option and it's there for you and I wouldn't be here without you, take it…I didn't want to lose her."

Wei Zhang's health worsened, both of her kidneys beginning to shut down.

"I looked into it and discovered it wouldn't change my life, I talked to the doctors and the nurses and got information from the hospitals and they said 'no, you can still have a baby, you can still do Jiu-Jitsu, you can still bike and do whatever you want,' and there are people born with one kidney and living fine without two."

With that, Zheng underwent a series of tests (not to mention paperwork), including blood work, X-rays, CT scans and MRIs.

"They wanted to make sure I was 100 percent healthy before they took one of my kidneys."  

A final genetics test of Zheng and Wei Zhang showed Zheng had not inherited the kidney disease gene in her mother's family.

It was then that Wei Zhang accepted her daughter's offer of one of her kidneys.

"If she hadn't accepted it then I don't think she would be here today…her health was just not good anymore and her body wasn't taking dialysis well either."

Zheng's donor surgery lasted between 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. February  25, 2015, and then her mother's transplant surgery lasted from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. that same day.

"It was like a baton pass with a kidney," Zheng said.

"I was walking the same day and went to visit my mother."

"For Mom, she has to make sure the kidney is healthy, I have to make sure I don't have a cold when I visit her." 

Wei Zhang is doing well, Zheng said.

"She's doing a lot of things for the first time in her life…she's awake before me and wants me to go for walks with her, shopping with her, and she went snowshoeing last winter," Zheng said.

"Before, it was just dialysis and sleep."

"I rested up (after the operation) and recuperated and I was good to go, I went for walks and a month later I was riding the bike, after five weeks I was doing three hours of biking and hiking," Zheng said. 

Zheng started her bicycle trek May 16 in Victoria, B.C. and hopes to reach St. John's, Newfoundland by late August before flying or busing back home.

Zheng and her travelling companion Robert Sam took a detour through Manitoba and bicycled through the U.S., entering the Sault across the International Bridge from Michigan Monday evening.

After resting up at Algoma's Water Tower Inn & Suites, Zheng plans to cycle away from the Sault Thursday morning and travel through Sudbury and Ottawa before heading to the Maritimes, but will take time out to attend the Canadian Transplant Games in Toronto from August 8 to 13.

"I just want people to know you can be an organ donor and still live an active, healthy life," Zheng said.

"I hope more people will sign up to be organ donors."

Zheng said most people are not aware of the cost to hospitals when it comes to all necessary testing before a transplant.

The cost delays transplant procedures.

"Some people can't wait too long, it's life or death for them," Zheng said.

To that end, she is raising money for the Canadian Transplant Association (CTA, a charitable organization dedicated to increasing organ and tissue donations in this country) through a GoFundMe fundraising drive.

Zheng is hoping to raise $75,000 through GoFundMe, with $11,750 raised so far.

"If more people have one less coffee a day and donate (money), we'll be able to meet our goal and help save lives, or help people live better lives after a transplant or after donating an organ."

You can follow Zheng's journey by clicking here