Sports has the power to change the world. We’ve all heard Nelson Mandela’s quote from 1995 during the Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa. We each have our individual moments where we see sports as a catalyst for social change and a unifier of people. A more recent example actually took place last year and involves a colleague I knew from our times in BBYO, a Jewish youth group organization..
A year ago – March 31, 2018 - Kelly Sowatsky, then 30, held up a sign that had the following message: “Hey Guentzel, I’d love a hockey stick… but what I really need is a kidney. 717-456-0766.” The back side of the sign read, “Calling all hockey fans! I need a kidney! Kidney! Kidney! Gratefully yours, Kelly.”
Sowatsky was a woman who was desperate to get the attention of anyone who would be willing to listen – her kidneys were dying as their function was down to only 7 percent. She said, “For 15 minutes I’m standing there, holding this thing up over my head just hoping that somebody will see it.”
Her life battle started on Christmas Eve 2015 – she was helping her mother in the kitchen when her hands started to shake and her temperature shot up to 104 degrees. An infection had turned septic and had migrated to her lungs. Sowatsky was rushed to the hospital and put on a ventilator. Only due to an aggressive course of medicines, was she able to live. When she was discharged from the hospital 2.5 months later, she was told she would need routine kidney check ups for the rest of her life.
Fast forward two years and her life changed again. A routine checkup revealed that Sowatsky had entered end-stage renal failure. According to ESPN and Dr. Amit Tevar, Director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “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.” Sowatky remembers thinking, “That donor list is terrifying. So, I thought, ‘What else can I do?’” Sowatsky and her boyfriend came up with an idea to make a sign at an upcoming Penguins game and try to raise awareness through the sign.
On March 31, 2018, the couple was at the Penguins game and Sowatsky held up her sign during the pregame skate. Andi Perelman, the Director of New Media for the Pittsburgh Penguins spotted the sign and asked her social media photographer to investigate further. When asked if her plea was real, Sowatsky said yes and so the team took a picture and shared it on social media. Immediately, she was bombarded with tweets, calls and texts for weeks. There were dozens of media requests, with many people offering different forms of encouragement as well as people asking to be donors. After some hiccups and missteps that are typical of the healthcare field, Sowatsky was tested and called Jeff Lynd, a fellow Penguins fan who had seen her plea on the Penguins mobile app. On November 6 of that year, Sowatsky received a kidney from the guy who saw her story on his phone through the Penguins mobile app. Her kidneys are back to normal, functioning, as a healthy kidney should. What seemed like a last ditch, desperate plea, turned into a life-saving one.
Why We Like It: That’s the power of sports. It brings together complete strangers through the love of a commonality – a player, a team or a shared memory. Sports has a unique way to raise awareness for a cause that is unlike any other business.
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