Advocacy | Dialysis | Kidney disease | Patient stories | Transplant

A Son’s Gift. A Wife’s Promise: Fighting for Living Kidney Donors

June 18, 2024, 9:12am EDT

Mari Artinian speaking at Ohio House Ways and Means House

Mari Artinian's husband, Chris, was diagnosed with early-stage kidney disease in 2009. His kidneys were damaged by obesity, which forces your kidneys to work harder, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Motrin. Before the diagnosis, neither Mari nor Chris knew these were risk factors for kidney disease. They also didn’t know how severe the condition could become. That changed in November 2022. 

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Declining Kidney Function

Up until that fateful month, Mari and Chris lived their lives as normally as possible. They traveled, spent time with their children, and kept up with doctor appointments. 

"Chris went to the cardiologist for a routine check-up,” said Mari. “They found unusual red blood cell activity. He went to an oncologist who thought it was a type of blood cancer. A bone marrow biopsy and additional testing revealed that it was his kidneys.”

The cause of the unusual activity was his kidneys, which produce the hormone that signals the production of red blood cells, beginning to fail. His healthcare team informed them and recommended he start the transplant evaluation process.

"I, our five children, brother-in-law, and an anonymous donor registered with the local transplant center but we had to wait for Chris to finish the transplant evaluation process," Mari said. "We had no idea this would take months, not days or weeks. He had his final transplant evaluation appointment for the middle of June 2023. Our goal was to have Chris transplanted before he needed dialysis." 

In April, Chris visited his nephrologist for a scheduled check-up. Testing revealed he was in kidney failure despite not showing any symptoms of it.

"He got a dialysis port the next day and started treatment the day after that," said Mari. "The doctor didn't know if he would make it through the weekend. His numbers were terrible. Terrified doesn't begin to cover my emotions."

Mari was devastated. With seven potential donors, she was heartbroken that Chris wasn't able to get a transplant before his kidneys failed. 

"I told the nurses that Chris had multiple living donors willing to go through the process," Mari said. "They were in tears because he had so many people willing to donate. It is so rare."

Once Chris began dialysis, his health rebounded, but that was only the start of his journey.

Learn about kidney transplants with NKF's free online course, "First Steps to Transplant."

Finding Chris a Donor

As the Artinians waited to finish the living kidney donation process, they also trained for home dialysis

"Chris is a company president and CEO who travels. He needed the ability to dialyze at odd hours to catch his flights. Home dialysis gave him that flexibility," Mari said. "I was also advocating for Chris to have his donors tested as soon as possible."

Their son Peter, who lived in another state, was the first to finish the donor evaluation process. 

"Peter flew or drove back and forth for all the testing. The time commitment, money spent, days off, and travel didn't go unnoticed by us," said Mari. "A month and a half later, we learned Peter was not a suitable candidate. We thought we were at the finish line and we had to start over again with a new donor."

Mari tried next. 

"I wouldn’t have to take off work or travel. The only drawback to my donating was that my children would see both parents go through surgery," said Mari. "I was a match and we got a surgery date. Then, my very healthy dad was hospitalized with his own kidney issue."

As a result, Mari's stress level caused her blood pressure to rise, disqualifying her from donating. 

"All that time was wasted again. On the bright side, I pushed hard to have my son, Joey, tested along with me. I didn’t want more time wasted should I become ineligible," Mari said. "They paused his evaluation when I was deemed a match. Once I was disqualified, Joey flew to us to resume testing.”

He was a perfect match for Chris.

"People have to advocate for themselves," said Mari. "We were told that Chris would have had to wait at least another year for a transplant if I hadn't fought for Joey to get tested alongside me. Advocating for Chris became my full-time job. Unfortunately, not many have the luxury or time to do that."

The surgery date was scheduled for November 28, 2023.

"The timing was perfect. The university Joey works for was going on break. They gave Joey a longer paid break and let him work from our home while recovering," said Mari. "He continued to get paid by his employer, a key issue for a 23-year-old with student loans. We were very lucky."

The surgery was a success. Today, Joey has recovered and Chris is enjoying his second chance at life.

"Joey is my hero–all our kids are. They all stepped up," Mari said. "We're blessed to have so many willing to do whatever it took to help Chris during this adventure."

Learn more about living kidney donation with NKF's free online course.

Becoming a Voices For Kidney Health Advocate

Due to her son's generosity and the family's financial situation, Chris is thriving. Mari knows others aren't so lucky. She joined the National Kidney Foundation's (NKF) advocacy group, Voices for Kidney Health, to help more people become living donors.

"Living donors should not suffer financial loss or hardship for their selfless act,” Mari said. “I testified before the Ohio House Ways and Means House on behalf of NKF to support Bill 399. It creates a tax credit for employers who provide paid leave to employees becoming living donors. Allowing donors medical leave without fear of losing income removes a significant barrier to donation."

Mari also knows that living donations are usually better than cadaver donations for the patients.

"Many dialysis patients are too sick to work which exacerbates financial and personal hardships," Mari said. "Living donation has some of the best outcomes for patients. It also represents the best opportunity to increase the number of kidney transplants for the thousands of people on the kidney transplant waitlist."

By working together, we can ensure that everyone who needs a kidney gets one. Want to help NKF create a future where there are kidney transplants for all? Become a Voices for Kidney Health advocate to start making a difference today

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