Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Pittsburgh Penguins

One sign. One tweet. One miracle.

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Sports teams can bring people together, melding a tribe of faithful followers that form unbreakable bonds through the crucible of competition. 

And, sometimes, sports teams can save lives. 

That was the case for Kelly Sowatsky and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Lancaster native and Penguins fan was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. The normally reserved and private Sowatsky took a leap of faith. She attended a Penguins game against Montreal on March 31, 2018 with her plea inscribed on a sign: "Calling All Hockey Fans! I Need A Kidney! Kidney! Kidney! Gratefully Yours, Kelly."

Andi Perelman, who oversees the Penguins' social media, noticed the neon sign at the game. She tweeted a picture of Sowatsky holding her sign from the team's official handle. Other outlets picked up the story and it went viral. 

Nearly 300 miles away in Delaware another Penguins fan, Jeff Lynd, saw the tweet and offered to donate his kidney. It took eight months for everything to come to fruition, but on Nov. 6 doctors at UPMC performed kidney transplant surgery. 

Both Sowatsky and Lynd are doing well two weeks later. 

Sowatsky now has a new, fully functioning kidney, as well as a 10-inch scar on her abdomen from the surgery. "It's a scar that tells a story," she said. "It's part of my story."

And that story is bigger than just any one individual. It's a story of the power of sports, social media and the bond of a fan base. 

"There's no words to really express the gratitude and the way I feel about what (Lynd) did for me because he literally saved my life," Sowatsky said. "And the doctors, too. If you trickle it down, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the reason my life is being saved, too. If it weren't for (Perelman) and for me loving the Penguins ... "

Or, as Lynd put it: "She always cries and thanks me and I always tell her to thank Mario (Lemieux). If Mario didn't save the team then none of us would be here."

Lynd is a Bethel Park native and die-hard Penguin fan since birth, though he relocated after college. Sowatsky converted with the help of her fiancé Tyler Hart. The couple is "obsessed" with the team. And Sowatsky credits the Pens with helping her through some struggles. 

"They got me through some really rough days in the last couple of years with how sick I felt," she said. "It didn't matter how bad I was feeling, I always felt better when I watched the Penguins play."

Sowatsky will have another chance to watch the Penguins play in the future as the team has invited Kelly and her family as well Lynd's family to attend an upcoming morning skate and game in a suite. The date hasn't been determined, pending final clearance from the doctors, but Sowatsky is excited nonetheless. 

"I can't wait," Sowatsky said. "I'm so stoked. I never dreamed that this would lead to anything that is about to happen. I'm going to fangirl so hard that it's probably not going to be funny. I'm obsessed with the Pens."

Sowatsky, 31, and Lynd, 35, have a unique bond with the team. It was their mutual love of the Penguins that brought them together: the Penguins, a handmade sign, a tweet and fate.  

"There are no words," said Jackie Sowatsky, Kelly's mother. "It's just mindboggling for me as a parent, as her mom, her caregiver that a simple sign did so much for Kelly. And that the Pittsburgh Penguins actually caught the sign and made the information available. For her to get a donor off of that sign, I get choked up every time I think about it. 

"It's a miracle."

Kelly Sowatsky was preparing dinner on Christmas Eve in 2015 when she began feeling ill. She assumed the feeling would pass; however, by 8:30 p.m. that evening she found herself in a hospital. 

Sowatsky had an infection that turned into septicemia. Two days after being admitted to the hospital, she stopped breathing and required a ventilator for 12 days. The infection soon spread, and her lungs and kidneys started shutting down. After two months in the hospital, Sowatsky was released in stable condition.  

Over the next few months her kidney function dropped from 50 percent to as low as seven percent. She was put on a cadaveric donor list, but could have to wait for 4-5 years. 

Sowatsky took the matter into her own hands. Literally. 

She attended the Pens' contest in New Jersey on March 29, 2018 with a sign asking for a kidney donor. However, it didn't generate much attention. Sowatsky knew she had to take her plea to Pittsburgh. 

"In the right place, the sign is going to work," she remembers thinking. "I just decided to try and I said we need good seats, we need to take the sign with us and we need to go to PPG Paints Arena."

Two days later, on March 31 when the Pens hosted Montreal, Sowatsky stood at the glass during the Pens' warmups with her sign on full display.

As an ode to her favorite player, one side of her sign read: "Hey (Jake) Guentzel, I'd love a hockey stick but what I need is a kidney." The other side stated: "Calling All Hockey Fans, I Need A Kidney! Kidney! Kidney! Gratefully yours, Kelly." Both sides had her Google voice phone number listed at the bottom. 

"I held up the sign for Jake so that he could see it through the glass if he looked up, and then everybody behind us could see my plea for a kidney," Sowatsky said. "People were asking about it and we were briefly talking to anybody who asked questions."

A Penguins social media photographer approached Sowatsky and asked to take a picture of her with the sign. The team's official Twitter handle (@penguins) tweeted out the image of Sowatsky holding her sign and smiling prior to the game. She was stunned when she saw the tweet.

And the onslaught of support overwhelmed her. 

"I said what the heck, that's the coolest thing that's ever happened," Sowatsky said. "From that point on, my phone just never stopped ringing. It was non-stop phone calls, emails, text messages and voicemails.

"I was speechless."

Tweet from @penguins: Penguins fan: Seeking hero. pic.twitter.com/jAeA81Wny7

Andi Perelman was sitting in her perch from the media level high above the ice at PPG Paints Arena waiting for the start of Pittsburgh's contest against Montreal when she noticed an interesting sign down below. 

"We saw the sign in the lower bowl. We sent a social photographer down to get a photo," said Perelman, the Penguins' director of new media. "We had never seen a sign like that at a game. I thought, 'we have to help if we can.' 

"I can tell you this, we never imagined we'd help Kelly find a donor through that tweet."

Perelman had a personal attachment to the story. Her mother, Sharon, had part of her kidney removed in 2016. Perelman stayed with her at Mercy Hospital for the surgery, which took place during the team's Stanley Cup parade. 

"For me it was pretty cool," she said. "To be able to help somebody else with something like that, it hits close to home for me.

"We all thought it would be amazing if it worked out. We were all just hoping."

The tweet had the desired effect, netting over 500,000 impressions and causing Sowatsky's phone to explode with an outpouring of support. 

And all with the simple click of a button. 

"I think this is the most incredible thing that's ever happened on our social," Perelman said. "We're just covering a game like normal and see this sign that's out of the ordinary."

The social media group exchanged ideas on what to use for the caption that would accompany the photo. They settled on four simple words: "Penguins fan: Seeking hero."

 

Jeff Lynd was scrolling through Twitter from his Delaware home on Easter morning. Lynd was born and raised in Pittsburgh's Bethel Park before relocating, and is a lifelong Penguins fan. As he scrolled through the team's Twitter account, he came upon the image of Sowatsky holding her call for help. 

Lynd, also a schoolteacher like Sowatsky, knew immediately that their fates would become intertwined. 

"My heart just started racing because I had this instinct that I was going to be the one that was going to be selected for it," Lynd recalled of the moment. 

Lynd saw that he and Sowatsky had the same blood type and did two hours of research on kidney donation. He sent her a message on Facebook. What followed were several months of evaluations and nerves. 

Lynd's optimism never wavered and he continually reassured Sowatsky during the process. "This is going to work out, I know it," he would say. 

After six months of going through the process, the surgery was conducted by UPMC on Nov. 6. Sowatsky arrived in her hospital room - fittingly room No. 87 - with her kidney functional at just nine percent. 

Following a 13-hour surgery, her new kidney - which she nicknamed Sidney the Kidney - was working at 99 percent. 

"This is where Jeff's contribution, his altruism, his bravery on being a donor comes into play," said UPMC's Dr. Amit D. Tevar, who conducted the surgery. "Not only did he save Kelly's life; her coming off the cadaveric list moves everyone up. So in my estimation, two people actually benefit from this."

Many people have shared Dr. Tevar's view of Lynd. The donor himself, however, does not. 

"I don't see it like that. I see it as a guy helping somebody out," Lynd said. "She needed help and I was able to do it. If it wasn't me, it would have been somebody else."

But the Sowatskys would politely disagree. 

"Jeff has been a godsend," Jackie Sowatsky said. "I don't know where he came from, but he saw that sign and said this is what he wants to do. We've been very blessed all around right now. He's a very special person."

  

Penguins fans are a proud bunch. Their love of the team is limitless. Their commitment immeasurable. And their connection to each other is unwavering. 

"(Pittsburgh is) where I'm from. It's where my roots are from," Lynd said. "I have a passion for the Penguins and I've had that ever since I was a little kid. To be able to do this in the hometown where this all started I think it fits perfectly."

Even during the darkest times, Sowatsky looked to the Penguins - a sports team - for inspiration. 

"The tenacity that they had, it was what I told myself I had to have," she said. "Even when I was down and out, you just have to keep going. Even if it's a losing day, you have to push forward and come back the next day, or the next game. You need that fighting vengeance to win the day. I took some pointers from the Pens and how they were so resilient. I told myself that I had to be the same way."

The Penguins overcame a lot of adversity en route to their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and '17. The story of Sowatsky and Lynd is also a lesson in perseverance as well as kindness, bringing two people together to change a life. 

It, too, had a fairytale ending. 

"It's something you see out of a movie," Lynd said. "It's just incredible because of the way everything had to transpire and every specific event that had to work in order to be where we are. 

"She's going to be OK. I'm going to be OK, and we're both going to go back to our normal lives. A year from now it'll be like this never happened."

One sign. One tweet. One miracle. 

"Kelly did a wonderful thing by actually getting this (sign) on social media," Dr. Tevar said. "The power of social media is highlighted here because through a simple tweet, Jeff was able to identify another Pens fan who needed a kidney transplant, he wanted to be a donor and was able to make this happen and save a life. 

"And this was just a tweet during a game."

Tweet from @GMA: A hockey fan asked for a kidney on a homemade sign during a game ��� and found a match! @PaulaFaris has more on their emotional reunion. https://t.co/W1vUNMab63 pic.twitter.com/8BNrSTdvcG

 

View More