The Hockey Save that Started in the Stands

There are more than 100,000 people who are waiting for a kidney donation in the United States alone. And the wait can be extensive — according to Donate Life America, the average wait time for a kidney ranges between three to five years.  A big reason for this is, simply, a lack of available kidneys available to donees. In 2014, according to the National Kidney Foundation, there were only 17,000 or so kidney transplants. Fewer than a third came from living donors, and almost all of those come from donors who know their donees — relatives, friends, or the like.

And sometimes, you need to take a very liberal definition of who your friends are. Desperate times, as it is said, call for desperate measures.

That’s what Kelly Sowatsky, a 31-year-old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania thought. After meeting her future fiance almost ten years ago, she joined more than his family. She also joined him in his love of hockey and became part of a larger fraternity — the society of people who call themselves fans of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Which led her to the below:

That’s her, in the stands during a Pens game on March 31, 2018. And while she was there to cheer on the hometown team, the sign gives away her bigger goal — she needed a kidney. On Christmas 2015, her kidney function had fallen to 10% after a urinary tract infection turned septic, spreading toxicity into her lungs. She told Pensburgh, a Penguins-specific blog, that she “had to be put on a ventilator for 12 days and eventually had to relearn to walk after my muscles atrophied because [she] couldn’t get out of bed.” She was placed on the kidney donee list, knowing that the wait could be half a decade long.

At first, it seemed like Sowatsky would be one of the lucky ones — the donor network found her a match. But it fell through, so Sowatsky cast a wider net — everyone who loved the team she loved. When she showed up at the Penguins’ game that Saturday night in March, and the team’s social media lead, Andi Perelman, noticed. The Penguins’ took and tweeted the photo above, and fans around the country helped spread the message. She followed up with a message about her blood type (A+) and information about her doctors.

It worked.

Another Penguins fan — Jeff Lynd, 35, of Delaware — took notice and immediately reached out to Sowatsky via Facebook. Lynd told Good Morning America “I saw desperation, I saw courage and I saw she needed help. I knew that my blood type matched. I had this feeling it was something I just had to do.” He’d tell other press outlets that he had “an instinct” that he’d be a match. And he was right. In November 2018, Lynd donated a kidney to Sowatsky, despite the fact that they had nothing in common save for an affinity for a hockey team.

Bonus fact: Out-of-the-box way to solicit a kidney work more often than you may expect. In February 2018, Ryan McLennan and his wife Shakina rented more than two dozen billboards near their Texas home. The signs advertised Ryan’s need for a new kidney. and like Sowatsky’ efforts, it worked, too. Per Newsweek, “the billboard campaign led to 170 inquiries to The Kidney Foundation, while 50 people applied to donate their organs and 30 underwent testing” — and at least one person matched.

From the Archives: De Grote Donorshow: American Idol meets kidney donation — but in a good way, ultimately.