Seven weeks after the transplant that saved Kelly Sowatsky’s life, Sowatsky, second from right, and donor Jeff Lynd, second from left, met their kidney’s namesake, Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
Let’s call it the Miracle Just Off The Ice.
One year ago — on Saturday, March 31, 2018 — anyone who had arrived early at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena to watch the Penguins‘ pregame skate before their game against the Montreal Canadiens probably caught a flash of a day-glo yellow sign, in an aisle, five or six rows up from the glass. Then they probably forgot all about it, as it was immediately lost in the mosaic of signs, banners and countless other swaths of yellow mixed in with all of the Penguin black and gold.
But the message scrawled in black marker across this piece of poster board was different, although that was not apparent at first glance. “Hey Guentzel, I’d love a hockey stick …” was nothing original. Then there was the amendment to that request: “… but what I need is a kidney. 717-456-0766.” The other side of the sign, the one facing the ice, was more direct. “Calling all hockey fans! I need a Kidney! Kidney! Kidney! Gratefully yours, Kelly.”
Kelly Sowatsky, then 30, was the woman holding that sign aloft, arms burning, desperate to get the attention of anyone who might be willing to save her life. Beneath her No. 59 Jake Guentzel jersey and buried within her tiny, 5-foot frame, Sowatsky’s kidneys were dying, having crashed into end-stage renal failure, their function down to only 7 percent.
“For 15 minutes I’m standing there, holding this thing up over my head,” Sowatsky remembers. “Just hoping that somebody will see it.”
Attention had never been a problem for Sowatsky before. From the moment she was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she was the kind of kid who seemed to carry her own spotlight around with her. She was energetic. Yes, she was tiny, but she never saw that as a setback. Her parents, Jackie and Brian Sowatsky, still smile in awe when they recall Kelly’s little legs churning up and down youth soccer fields like a piston engine. Even after she was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic at the tender age of 8, she simply schooled herself on needles and pumps and refused to let it slow her down. She wanted to be a country music singer, and she made that happen too, moving to Nashville, landing a record deal, touring the nation and even flirting with the sales charts under the stage name Kelly Parkes.
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Her life took a sharp turn on Dec. 24, 2015. As she was helping her mother make Christmas Eve dinner, Kelly’s hands started to shake, the color drained from her face, and her temperature leapt to 104 degrees. A urinary tract infection had turned septic and that infection had worked its way into her lungs, inhibiting her ability to breathe so much that she had to be put on a ventilator for nearly two weeks. An aggressive course of medicines staved off the infection and saved her life. But that treatment came with a cost. It had ravaged her kidneys. When she was finally discharged 2½ months later, Sowatsky was told that she probably would need routine kidney checkups for the rest of her life.
“[The kidneys] rebounded pretty quickly, like right back up to 75 or 80 percent,” she says of the first months after leaving the hospital. “So, OK, we’ll come back and get checkups, but whatever, I’m ready to get on with living my life.”
Now living in Pennsylvania, she went back to school to earn her teaching degree. She fell in love with a fellow teacher, Tyler Hart, who shared her passion for music. She soon developed a passion for his other two loves, Star Wars and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This was 2016, shortly after the Pens had won the Stanley Cup. Kelly didn’t know that. Heck, Kelly didn’t even know what the Stanley Cup was.
“She’s Kelly, so she went from zero to 100 in essentially a day,” Hart says, an unapologetically proud smile breaking across his face. “All of the sudden, she’s watching the games a bit more. And now she’s screaming at the TV with me.”
“I made flashcards of all the players, with their names on one side and their numbers on the back, so that when I was watching games I could be like, ‘Oh! Did you see what so and so just did?'” Sowatsky confesses now. “I was trying to initially just show Tyler that I’m invested, I’m doing it. And now I’m just way too obsessed … there’s just something about this group of guys, the way they play and the way they handle themselves. It’s just genuine. They are so easy to love … like Tyler.”
On June 11, 2017, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup again. This time, Kelly and Tyler celebrated it together, in their duplex apartment, decorated wall-to-wall in Pens memorabilia, including the gold towels they’d collected from the games they had attended.
A few weeks later, the celebrating stopped. That’s when a routine checkup turned into a nightmare, as doctors told Kelly that she had entered end-stage renal failure — meaning that her kidneys had dropped below 15 percent function and were worsening.
“Her options were to do nothing and do dialysis, where she has a 10-year lifespan, or look at going to transplant and getting a replacement organ and avoid dialysis altogether,” explains Dr. Amit Tevar, Director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But if you’ve met Kelly, then you know she’s an immovable force. I thought I had a lot of energy. She’s got more. And she’s determined. I mean, this woman was going to have a transplant.”
But the little girl with the piston legs ran into a force even more immovable than herself. After no one in her family was found to be a suitable donor, she was put on the national transplant waiting list, one of nearly 113,000 Americans awaiting an organ. More than 80 percent of them are in need of a kidney transplant. The average wait time is between four and five years. Every single day as many as 20 people die while waiting on that list.
“That donor list is … terrifying. So, I thought, ‘What else can I do?'” Sowatsky says. She and Tyler had tickets to an upcoming Penguins game, so she came up with an idea. “I said, ‘I’m going to make a sign!'”
This is the part of the story where you probably think we’re going to take you back to the beginning, to the young woman on the arena steps in Pittsburgh, her life literally in her own hands. But we aren’t there yet. That was actually the second time she had carried her sign into a hockey arena. The first was two days earlier, at a Penguins road game in New Jersey. Already nervous about the vulnerability of putting herself and her condition out into the public, Sowatsky had just unfurled her sign when she was approached by a cameraman. She thought he was going to put her on the Prudential Center Jumbotron, or even better, the New Jersey Devils TV coverage. Instead, Sowatsky says he told her, “I’m not putting that crap on our air. You’re wearing a Penguins jersey.”
“That was a tough drive home,” Hart says. “I think she felt like she had put herself out there, but the world had essentially rejected her at that point.”
Crushed, she decided to give it one more try. Which now brings us to March 31, 2018, with Sowatsky standing in the aisle during the pregame skate. While most people in the arena were focused on the players and their drills on the ice, Andi Perelman spotted the woman and her sign from her perch high above that ice, on press row. Intrigued, the Penguins’ social media director sent down her real-time correspondent — aka social media photographer Emilee Fails — to get a closer look. Fails asked Sowatsky if her plea was real. When she said yes, Fails snapped a photo and shortly thereafter Perelman sent out a Twitter post. It featured Sowatsky, her sign and the words “Penguins fan: seeking hero.”
The response was instantaneous. Hart scrolled through his social media timeline — and Sowatsky was there on the Penguins’ Twitter feed. Her phone started ringing. It didn’t stop for weeks. A story on NHL.com led to a siege of media requests, so many that on the Monday after the game, a local TV station crashed Sowatsky’s hair appointment as she got ready for her engagement photos with Hart that afternoon. Every time one of those news stories aired, it brought another wave of calls to the phone number on the poster, most offering encouragement, but many from people who wanted to be donors.
Among that deluge was a Facebook post from a teacher and fellow Penguins fan in Dover, Delaware. His name was Jeff Lynd. He had that Monday off and was relaxing at home, watching “The Price is Right” and flicking through the Penguins app to check the injury report when he saw the photo of Kelly and her sign and read up on her story.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, I see that kind of stuff and I just keep going. But for some reason I felt led and I started reading it,” Lynd recalls now. “So I clicked her story and I read it, and I saw the [need for someone with] blood type A positive. I sat here for an hour, hour and a half reading about kidney donation online. I just had this instinct that I was going to be selected to do this.”
Sowatsky and Lynd connected on Facebook briefly and even found out they had a mutual friend. But Sowatsky was so overwhelmed with responses and promises of help that she simply gave Lynd they boilerplate response she’d already given so many. “I said to him, ‘No, I haven’t found a donor yet, but the search is going very well. I’m just directing everybody to call the transplant office and get started with the process,'” she says. “And he goes, ‘OK, well great. I WISh you nothing but the best, I’ll give them a call tomorrow.’ I replied to him at the time like I would’ve anybody else. Trust me, I tried to reply to everybody.”
That was April 2. Over the next five months, Sowatsky found herself caught in the chutes and ladders of the American medical industry. She’d wanted to work with UPMC in Pittsburgh, but her insurance wouldn’t allow it. So she worked with a local hospital, which sifted slowly through the mountain of potential donors. Finally, a local friend was found to be a match and a surgery was scheduled for Aug. 30. Sowatsky was starting her first teaching job and had already told her class that she’d be going away for a few months. But one week out, the hospital’s transplant board disqualified her friend as a donor and canceled the procedure. Sowatsky was essentially back to where she’d been before taking her sign to Pittsburgh.
“I said, ‘What happened to all my other donors? Can you call them back? Can you reach out to them?'” she remembers asking. When she was told no, that the process was being reset, she demanded that whatever information they had be transferred to UPMC, insurance be damned.
So Kelly Sowatsky headed back to Pittsburgh. On Sept. 18, she was tested and evaluated at UPMC. Meanwhile, in a classroom 330 miles away, Jeff Lynd’s phone rang. He hadn’t heard from Kelly in months. “You think you could get up to Pittsburgh for some testing?” she asked.
“I never hesitated,” Lynd says. “By this time I knew the kind of person Kelly was and, as I’d said since the first time I saw her picture with her sign, I just knew deep down that this was how this was going to happen. I can’t explain that. I just always knew.”
On Nov. 6, the woman with the poster received a kidney from the guy who saw her on the Pittsburgh Penguins app. The combined procedure took 13 hours. Almost instantly, Kelly’s kidney function returned to normal. Her recovery took place in Room 87, the same number worn by Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. That’s why she named her new organ Sidney the Kidney.
Seven weeks later, Sowatsky, Lynd and Sidney the Kidney were together again in Pittsburgh, in the Penguins locker room. They shook hands with their kidney’s namesake. Kelly finally met Andi Perelman, the woman whose eagle eye and social media savvy ultimately saved Sowatsky’s life. And Guentzel fulfilled that poster’s other request, handing the woman wearing his jersey a signed hockey stick.
Now that stick and the poster adorn the walls of Sowatsky and Hart’s den in Lancaster County. The rest of the room is covered in wedding planning materials. The Star Wars fans’ ceremony is scheduled for May 4. The only thing that could make the day more perfect would be if the Penguins were to win a Stanley Cup playoff game that night.
“As terrible as the world can seem sometimes, there are so many good people out there ready and willing to help a complete stranger,” Sowatsky says. “Even when all hope seems lost … find something to hold on to and not let go.”
Kelly Sowatsky turns and points to the now well-worn poster that hangs on the wall behind her.
“Even if what you’re holding onto is a homemade sign.”