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Hope for a cure to kidney disease inspired GRCC student to enter ArtPrize

Sept. 21, 2023 GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There’s a story of love and hope behind those ArtPrize kidney beans.

Nine years ago, when Grand Rapids Community College student Natalie Frias was rushed to the hospital, both her kidneys — irreparably damaged by childhood strep throat — were failing. In fact, they’d shrunk to the size of dried kidney beans.

“I needed a kidney transplant, but none of my family or friends were a match,” Frias said. “I’d just met my now-husband, Mike, on a month earlier. Mike stayed by my side and even got tested to see if he was a donor match … and we matched again.”

On March 21, 2016, the pair underwent a successful transplant surgery at Trinity Health Grand Rapids Hospital and married just three months later.

Today the couple lives in Hudsonville with their two young children. Natalie Frias is happily enrolled in GRCC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program. And her kidney is holding its own.

Their amazing tale of matching has been featured on the “Today” show, in People magazine and on the local news. She even wrote a book about her journey called “Fighting Failure.”

But that’s not the end of her story.

“I consider myself a kidney warrior,” Frias said, now 41. “Even though 1 in 7 American adults has kidney disease, 90% of them don’t realize they have it.”

Frias has made it her life’s mission to spread awareness of the dangers of kidney disease and the importance of becoming an organ donor. She shares her message using social media, public appearances, her book — and now through art.

Frias created her very first piece of art — a sculpture with painted kidney beans as its foundation — and entered it in this year’s ArtPrize. Her entry is called “Silent Absence” and can be viewed through Oct. 1 at the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids.

The piece includes hundreds of kidney beans painted green, draping vine-like down an empty wooden chair and pooling on the floor.

“The kidney beans represent kidney disease, and the chair represents a place at the table with your loved ones,” she said. “It’s meant to demonstrate how kidney disease slowly takes over, taking you away from your loved ones and your normal daily life.”

Frias worked on the piece late at night this winter after putting her kids to bed and finishing her homework. It became a kind of therapy for her.

As a busy mom, wife and student, Frias hasn’t had a lot of extra time to chat with ArtPrize visitors viewing her work. But when she’s there, the experience has been magical.

“When I’m able to tell people my story to better understand the sculpture, the look that comes over their faces is really amazing. They suddenly understand why I’m so focused on kidney disease awareness and we just instantly connect,” she said.

Matt Mekkes, director of GRCC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, said he appreciates how Frias is utilizing ArtPrize as a platform to educate others.

“This skill of advocacy is one we strive to develop in all our students as they move from student to practitioner,” Mekkes said.

In the end, Frias said, the piece is meant to tell a story.

“If you look very closely, you’ll see a flower blossoming near the top,” she said. “That flower represents hope … hope for a cure.”

This story was reported by Beth McKenna