A Family That Gets Inked Together, Stays Together

March 16, 2017, 3:52pm EDT

Kidney health is important to Marly Thomson, a 20-year-old college student from Wisconsin. Kidney disease has affected many of the people closest to her— her mother, uncle, aunt and grandfather all received kidney transplants, and Thomson, along with several of her family members, chose to get custom kidney-related tattoos to commemorate their deceased grandfather. Here, Thomson shares her family’s story and the meaning behind her custom ink.

Tell us about how kidney disease has affected your family:

My grandpa developed kidney disease while he was working in the Air Force, and he had a successful kidney transplant 36 years ago [he passed away two years ago]. His son--my uncle--developed kidney disease as a teenager, and he underwent a successful kidney transplant in his 30s. My aunt was also diagnosed with end-stage renal failure last year; she received a kidney transplant a few months later but unfortunately passed away last fall.
My mom knew that her father and siblings had issues, so even though they told her kidney disease isn’t necessarily genetic, she was careful about getting tested. She was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure when I was a kid, and she’s actually had two kidney transplants. The first was in 2007. She was healthy for a few years after that, but was eventually told she’d have to go back on dialysis in 2013--that never happened, though, because she ended up getting another transplant about a month later.

You went as a group with your family to get kidney-related tattoos. Why did you all decide to get inked together?

About six months after my grandpa died, my family made the decision to go together to get tattoos to honor his memory--it was my mom, my uncle, his wife, my cousin, my brother and me. We each designed our own tattoos, but all of them are representative of kidney donation and/or of my grandpa in some way.

Your tattoo is of a beautiful butterfly on a vibrant green ribbon. How did you come up with that design?

I wanted something with a lot of detail and a lot of significance. My grandpa called me his little butterfly, so it’s obviously very personal. I ended up getting it over my right kidney, so that when people ask me what the ribbon is for, I can tell them my story and help spread the word about kidney health. A lot of people don’t know that much about kidney disease--when they see the ribbon, they assume cancer, so I like to be able to tell them about the actual significance. And because I’m a theater major, I wear a lot of, let’s say, interesting outfits that show the tattoo off, so I have the opportunity to talk about it often.

What do you and your siblings do now to take care of your kidneys?

There are three of us in my generation, and we’re all very aware of kidney disease in our family. We get our creatinine levels tested every month and watch the numbers closely, and just try to stay healthy in general.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Find out how to "heart your kidneys" and learn how the National Kidney Foundation is using tattoos to remind people that, in many cases, kidney disease can be prevented. Visit heartyourkidneys.com.
Disclaimer: The National Kidney Foundation does not endorse or recommend permanent tattoos or body art of any kind. If you are considering getting inked, talk to a doctor first, so you can understand the risks and complications associated with getting a tattoo.