Wi-Middle teacher donates kidney to stranger

Wicomico Middle School teacher Jeff Lynd talks with Kelly Sowatsky via computer. “Jeff and I talk daily. Every single day. He is part of me. He is my brother. We are forever entwined with each other’s families,” a buoyant Sowatsky said about Lynd.

There aren’t many days Jeff Lynd and Kelly Sowatsky don’t talk, exchange a quick hello by telephone, check on each other.

Their friendship began, then deepened, after Lynd, in a selfless act he downplays, donated a kidney to Sowatsky, a Columbia, Pa., resident who, sick and in need of the organ, held up a sign while attending a Pittsburgh Penguins game.

The sign sent the message, “Calling all hockey fans. I need a Kidney! Kidney! Kidney! Gratefully yours, Kelly.” At the bottom there was a telephone number.

The woman who handles public relations for the Penguins posted a video of Sowatsky holding the sign and the response was tremendous. But it was Jeff Lynd who donated.

“Jeff and I talk daily. Every single day. He is part of me. He is my brother. We are forever entwined with each other’s families,” a buoyant Sowatsky said about Lynd.

“Both of our families love each other so much. Words can’t describe my gratitude to Jeff and his wonderful wife.

“I joke with him. I say, ‘You know me better than that’ and he says, “Well, I do now.’

“Some people choose not to know their donors. Some people choose not to continue a relationship. But Jeff and I are great friends,” she said.

“She says I’m her hero but I’m not a hero,” said Lynd, 35, who teaches Technology Education at Wicomico Middle School and, like Sowatsky, is a Penguins fan.

“I just feel like somebody who helped somebody out. It might have been six months to a year, but she would have found somebody to do it. I wanted to help her in this way. It was some instinct I had,” Lynd said.

When Lynd first contacted Sowatsky, the 31-year-old special education teacher said, she didn’t have time to think about him individually because there were thousands of potential donor inquiries.

“I was just grateful to anyone who reached out. I told him how to get in touch with the center we were originally going to for the transplant, but we didn’t go there in the end.

“We talked for a few weeks. He would check in every now and then saying, ‘How are things?’” Sowatsky recalled.

By August, it appeared settled that Sowatsky’s best friend would be the donor, but the week before the scheduled day of surgery, that friend was disqualified.

“It was heartbreaking. We’re really not sure what happened with all of that. I kind of lost trust with that center and I said, ‘I’m going to Pittsburgh,’” Sowatsky said of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“I was able to go to the No. 1 center in the world for my kidney transplant,” she said.

Sowatsky first began feeling ill in 2015, after preparing Christmas Eve dinner with her mother for their family.

“I was fine all day but later on I started shaking. I thought I was just cold, but the heater was on, the fireplace was on. I felt really sick. I thought maybe I was getting a bad cold,” she said.

The illness escalated, and her family hurried her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a 104-degree temperature and septicemia, a bacterial infection that spreads through the vascular system.

Her lungs weren’t working and she stopped breathing.

“They had to get my parents there. My mom said it was one of the scariest things she ever saw. She got to the hospital and she saw a slew of doctors in lab coats saying, ‘We need to intubate your daughter or she won’t live.’

“She said, ‘Do it. Save her,’” Sowatsky said.

She was on a ventilator a little less than two weeks, developed a kidney infection and was hospitalized two and one-half months.

As she recovered, she was told she might eventually need a transplant. Within a year, kidney function dropped to 50 percent.

“At 50 percent I didn’t notice. I was tired from time to time. As it dropped to 20 percent, 10 percent, 7 percent, I had nausea, fatigue, body aches, overall, like the flu. Now everything is wonderful. I feel great,” she said.

Sowatsky now has three kidneys – Lynd’s and her native two, which weren’t removed.

After surgery, Lynd said he “felt like hell for like two days, then after 48 hours I felt better.”

“I was never scared. I get nervous and anxious about a lot of stupid stuff but I wasn’t scared at all.

“I knew I was going to get selected. I communicated with her on Facebook. I said, ‘Hey, how are you? Are you still looking for a kidney?” and she said, ‘Yeah.’ She told me to call the number,” Lynd said.

“I saw Kelly’s sign and I just had this feeling,” Lynd said.

“It is not in my person or in my being to wait until someone died for me to get a kidney, so I took that homemade sign to a Penguin’s game,” a smiling Sowatsky said.

Lynd and his wife Nicole will be there when Sowatsky and her finance, Tyler Hart, a music teacher she described as “adorable,” are married in May next year.

Hart was tested as a donor, but, like her father, Brian, mother, Jackie, and brother Eric, was part of her care team and not recommended as a donor.

So, once Lynd was approved as a match, he had the required blood work, a psychological evaluation, two-day medical evaluation, kidney function test, MRI of his kidneys, chest X-ray, EKG and talks with doctors and a neurologist.

He qualified for a grant to cover his travel expenses, but all medical tests were free. He received no compensation for the donation, because that is illegal, he explained.

“I liked her when I saw her online. She was a nice person. We had a lot in common. She went into education as second career. She was a country singer in Nashville for six years but … she had enough,” he said.

They got better acquainted when Lynd and his wife had dinner with Sowatsky and her family.

“We talked for hours,” he said.

“Her parents love me and her fiancé and I are buddies. Now, we talk every day. I talk to her daily.

“I did it because I wanted to do a nice thing for somebody. She was pretty sick. She could have died,” Lynd said.

“The best part about it was seeing her get better.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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