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Four-Time Kidney Transplant Recipient Looks Back With Gratitude

Jennifer Cramer-Miller shares the unique journey of being a four-time transplant recipient.

When I tell people I’ve had four kidney transplants, their eyes often widen as their eyebrows rise. I understand. You just don’t hear that every day. But I’m quick to clarify that due to the generosity of donors—my story is a happy one.

If we rewind thirty-three years, I was 22 with a promising job, a cool apartment, and a best-friend roommate. Suddenly, puffy eyes and a doctor visit led to a diagnosis of kidney disease. Six months later, my kidneys failed. This was definitely not part of my plan.  

Dialysis treatments began—a debilitating burden that pulled me from my carefree 20s life—but one that kept me alive. My concerned and all-in mom volunteered to donate her kidney, but we didn’t share enough matching antigens. After nearly two years on the transplant list, I received a call to receive a precious gift from a deceased donor. My hope soared.  

But after three days, my stubborn kidney disease recurred in my new kidney. At 25 years old, I lamented, “Now what?” 

My doctor managed my expectations by telling me that transplants are a vacation from dialysis. But I didn’t know how long my transplant “vacation” would last. Six months? Six years? What I knew was I owed it to my donor’s family to make my life the best I could with the gift I’d been given.

I became determined to live by the wise words of philosopher Joseph Campbell, “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” I pursued my career, social life, M.B.A, and dated a man named Dirk (who eventually asked me to say, “I do.”) After six years making memories with my gift, I required dialysis once again. 

I received my second deceased donation at 30, and this gift not only extended my life; but allowed me to create life with the birth of our baby girl, Liza. After almost eight happy years chock full of motherhood, marriage, and a bustling career, I needed another transplant. And what had previously been impossible became possible. Changes in antigen matching allowed my mom to donate her kidney for my third transplant, after all. She’d always been my all-in advocate, but in 2002, her unwavering determination to become a living donor gave “all-in” a whole new meaning. Gratitude is too small a word. 

In 2011, when I needed my fourth kidney, my husband jumped at the chance to take part in a paired exchange program. His donation benevolence merged with that of an altruistic 25-year-old man, and that is why I am here today. What do you call people who show up out of the goodness of their heart to help others? Heroes. And I’ve known so many. Steeped in kindness, I’m lifted again and again by the healing power of heroes helping people. 

I’m delighted to work as a LifeSource Ambassador to honor all the donors that lift so many people like me. Let’s all tip our hats to the heroes among us—because where there are helpers, there is hope.