Bigger than the rivalry: Kelly Sowatsky’s Pursuit of a Kidney Donor

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It was February, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were taking on the New Jersey Devils, both teams in search of a playoff spot. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman stood with a purpose, a plan, a handmade sign.

The sign was being held by 31 year old Kelly Sowatsky, now a teacher for students with learning differences. The meaning behind the sign was simple: Kelly needed a kidney.

She fell ill on Christmas Eve of 2015, being rushed to the hospital by her father. Originally diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, it became septic and spread to her kidneys, shutting them down.

Kelly dealt with complications for months. Her lungs stopped working, putting her on a ventilator for two weeks.She had back pain, tests constantly coming back inconclusive. Finally, a surgeon came in and told her that her kidneys were riddled with infection, eventually dropping to 20% function last July. Kelly, however, decided it was time to act.

“Sitting around on a list waiting for my name to be called isn’t me, so I went out and did something about it.”

Fans that night in New Jersey, however, didn’t take too kindly to what Kelly was doing, and the fact that she was doing it in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in enemy territory.”

“They only saw my jersey, not the sign.”

Many fans were kind, inquiring about the meaning behind the sign. Others accused her of wanting her 15 minutes of fame. Kelly explained that this was not the reception she was looking for.

“It was a heart-wrenching disappointment… I’ve almost died twice now, but I’ve come back with a vengeance and said ‘Not yet.’ ”

Unfazed, Kelly went to a more hospitable venue, PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, sign in hand.

“I knew I was going to get a warmer reception in Pittsburgh, but I was still nervous. I was making myself vulnerable.”

Kelly watched her favorite skater, Jake Guentzel, skate around at practice. A little after the Penguins left the ice, this happened:

The Penguins twitter account went bonkers, a little over one thousand retweets, almost two thousand likes, and Kelly’s Google Voice Number wouldn’t stop ringing that night, and for two weeks after the game.

“Emails, calls, voicemails, of all the people who called, over 1,000 people offered to get tested. Thousands and thousands of messages on social media, well wishes. That mattered just as much.”

With the reality sinking in that Kelly may finally find the kidney that could save her life, she started doing her research on which hospital would be the best fit for her needs.

“I wanted to go to the best hospital. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) was the number one kidney transplant center in the world. They didn’t take my insurance initially.”

With that in mind, Kelly continued her research, and settled on Johns Hopkins.

“Several hundreds of donors stepped forward. 7 months go by, and Johns Hopkins calls and said they had a donor for me.”

Kelly scheduled her surgery for August 30th, anxious to receive the kidney that had eluded her unto this point. One week prior to the surgery, Kelly received a phone call from Johns Hopkins. The donor had been disqualified, and the surgery had been cancelled.

“It was the toughest news I had received in a long time.”

What happened next is a testament to Kelly’s personality.

“I didn’t have much time to grieve. My attitude is to push forward, pick up all the pieces, so I transferred my care to UPMC.”

Her latest appointment was this past Tuesday, and things are going well for Kelly. She has her support system in place, consisting of a loving fiance, family, and a great group of kids whom she teaches.

“A group of students found out (about her situation) just last week, and they’re now rallying around me… My work family has been unbelievably supportive.”

Not only have her students, co-workers, and family rallied around her, friends have started a GoFundMe account for her medical expenses (Link Below). A fundraiser is also being planned in the near future.

There have been ups and downs for Kelly, but she remains positive, saying that there’s so much more to live for. Her life is just beginning, and there is too much to look forward to.

“There have been days that have defeated me, but I have so much life. I’m getting married in May, anticipating a family in the future. I love my new job… I’ve worked too hard and done too many things. I won’t let them fall by the wayside and let them become irrelevant because this kidney disease took over my life.”

Though Kelly is still waiting on a kidney, she has learned a valuable lesson through the voicemails, phone calls, and outcry of support since attending that Penguins game.

“It has restored my faith in humanity.”

If you, or someone you know, would like to check to see if you qualify to be a donor, please contact UPMC at (412) 647-5800 and ask for the Living Donor Transplant Program Coordinator. Kelly’s blood type is A+, and direct donors need to be as well, or they could be the universal donor (Type-O).

If you would like to donate to Kelly’s GoFundMe page, you can do so by visiting