Former Raven gives his Steeler brother a kidney

Ma'ake Kemoeatu donates to his brother, Chris

  • Former Pittsburgh Steeler Chris Kemoeatu, left, received a kidney from his brother, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, a former Ravens player, in a transplant operation on Aug. 27.
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Chris Kemoeatu, left, received… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
September 17, 2014|By Mike Klingaman | The Baltimore Sun

Three weeks after receiving a kidney transplant from his brother, a former Ravens' player, Chris Kemoeatu has heard all of the wisecracks.

"Everyone jokes about me having a Ravens' kidney," said Kemoeatu, 31, who played seven years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "But hey, I can live with that."

He'll have to.

On Thursday, Kemoeatu (key-moy-AH-too) and his brother, Ma'ake (ma-AH-kay), spoke at the University Of Maryland Medical Center of the unusual circumstances surrounding their Aug. 27 surgeries there. While kidney transplants between family members are not uncommon, this was likely the first one between players linked to both sides of one of the NFL's fiercest rivalries.

"I'm a Raven and Chris is a Steeler but for this procedure, we had to come together," said Ma'ake, 35, a starting defensive tackle on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl championship team. Ma'ake, who also played for Baltimore from 2002-2005, has one championship ring; Chris, an offensive guard who retired in 2011, has two Super Bowl rings — plus one of his brother's kidneys.

That disparity hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I figure he owes me a lot of steak dinners," Ma'ake said.

Chris, who'd battled painful kidney problems since adolescence, quit football three years ago to address his deteriorating health. A transplant seemed the best bet, and tests at UMMC showed his eldest brother was a 99 percent match.

Ma'ake stepped up.

"I'm the oldest of seven kids and it's my responsibility to take care of the rest," he said. "If my siblings need blood, it will be my blood. If they need a kidney, it will be my kidney. We both stopped our careers for this, but I'd have done it even if I was a rookie with the Ravens. I have to lead by example."

The procedure was set for July but, on the eve of surgery, a routine stress test showed Chris had heart problems and he underwent quadruple coronary bypass instead. While recovering, he underwent dialysis at UMMC to prepare for the kidney transplant.

"There were days when I drove him (from their Canton townhouse) to dialysis when Chris looked at me and said, 'I don't think I can do this anymore,'" Ma'ake recalled. "I said, 'Bro, muster up all the strength you've got. We're gonna get through this. It's fourth and long but we're gonna get a first down."

Chris Kemoeatu ran with that analogy.

"We got into the end zone," Ma'ake said.

Prior to transplant, both men checked into the hospital weighing 345 pounds, which provided a challenge for surgeons.

"Chris and Ma'ake aren't your average-sized people," said Dr.David Leeser, chief of kidney and pancreas transplantation. "Using standard measures of obesity, a lot of (hospitals) would have refused Ma'ake as a donor — he has a 22-inch neck, which is the waist size for a lot of women. But when we measured his body fat it came out average for men in the U.S."

In a 2 1/2 hour operation, Leeser removed one of Ma'ake's kidneys, which measured 13 centimeters, about 3 more than average, and passed it on for transplant.

"It was the largest normal kidney I've ever seen in my life," said Dr. Stephen Bartlett, the hospital's surgeon-in-chief who performed Chris' procedure. "I felt like somebody had thrown me a small football."

The five-hour surgery went off without a hitch.

When he awoke in recovery, Ma'ake asked a nurse about his brother.

"Look to your left," she said.

"He was still asleep, with the hose in his mouth," Ma'ake said. "I knew I'd have something good to wake up to."

Several hours later, Chris was awake in his room when Ma'ake walked in.

"I told him, 'There's no better gift you can give a brother,' " Chris said.

Both men received get-wells from their respective teams: Ma'ake, from the Ravens' Haloti Ngata and Torrey Smith, among others, and Chris, from Pittsburgh's Hines Ward and Heath Miller. The brothers will remain here for several months, then return home to Hawaii where they own a sports fitness center.

Chris won't return to football. Ma'ake isn't sure.

"It's been a tough year," Chris said."I've experienced all I wanted to in football. I've played in three Super Bowls and been blessed to watch my brother play in another."

Ma'ake said he'd "love to play" and cited one former Raven, linebacker Paul Kruger — now with the Cleveland Browns — who's playing with only one kidney. But business interests and family ties come first.

He'll never forget the surgery.

"They told me they have the whole thing on film," Ma'ake said. "I've watched a lot of game films, but I'm not quite ready to see this yet."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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