Childhood Friend Becomes a Kidney Donor, Gets Matching Tattoos with Recipient

Chris Kraemer was diagnosed kidney disease in his 30s, which eventually lead to a kidney transplant. His childhood best friend volunteered as a living donor, ultimately saving his life.

How did you find out you had kidney disease?

I was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2007 during a routine physical. I went to a nephrologist, but for a few years I didn’t have any symptoms and I felt pretty good. Then, in 2012, I was hospitalized for an asthma attack and while I was there, we learned my kidney function had dropped in half. I went for more tests and we discovered that I also had cysts in both kidneys, and some in my liver and pancreas. I ended up getting diagnosed with three different kidney diseases— polycystic, TBMD, and FSGS. I was 36 years old, with no family history of kidney disease, so it came as a real surprise.
 
By 2014, even though I was taking medication and making lifestyle changes to try to improve my health, my kidneys had declined to the point where a transplant became the best option.

How did you prepare for the transplant, and how did your childhood friend come to be your donor?

In June of 2014, I was referred to the Mayo Clinic, and approved for a transplant. I talked to my wife and family, and we decided to put together a little website called “Kidney for Kraemer” and send it out to everyone we knew. My best friend, Casey, was pretty much the first person to respond. We grew up together when we were little kids, and even though he lives in St. Louis now and I’m in Arizona, we still keep in touch. He said he wanted to get tested to see if he was a match, and it turned out he was. He was approved to donate, and in December of 2014, I received my kidney transplant from my best friend.

But that’s not the end of your kidney story. What happened after that?

Two weeks after I had my transplant, I had an MRI. They found that some of the cysts on my original kidneys had changed, and were possibly cancerous. Since I’d already had a successful transplant from Casey, I had a second procedure to remove my kidneys, which were indeed cancerous. I’m blessed and thankful that it happened like this— having cancer in your kidneys can disqualify you from being eligible for a transplant, so the fact that it worked in this order saved my life.

Why did you decide to get a tattoo, and how did you come up with the design?

I knew I wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate this experience, and I talked to Casey, who was all for it. About a year after my transplant, I went to a tattoo parlor, and we developed the design together. It’s a cross, because my faith was really important throughout this process, with the cancer ribbon going around it. The green color is for kidney transplants, and I have the date of my transplant; it transitions into the orange, which is the color for kidney cancer, and I have the date I had my kidneys removed.

How do you take care of your kidneys today?

I’m fortunate to have had a pretty clean bill of health since my surgeries, and the cancer is basically gone. I try to maintain a lifestyle that’s good for kidney health— restricting my sodium intake and exercising regularly. I still talk to Casey at least once a month, and our families get together during the holidays.
 
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.