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Patient is transplant athlete medal winner

IU Health University Hospital

Patient is transplant athlete medal winner

She lives her life to the fullest because she was given a second chance.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, TJ Banes, tfender1@iuhealth

It’s been 15 years since Kathleen “Kathy” Lewis received a kidney transplant at IU Health University Hospital. Every day since she has lived with the attitude: “Try new things you always wanted to do.”

She demonstrated that attitude when she learned to swim competitively. That was nine years ago and she was 60 years old. Since then, Lewis has competed in four World Transplant Games and plans to return to the next one in two years. The Transplant Games are one of many ways organ recipients honor the lasting legacy of their donors. The games are held every two years and highlight the need for organ, eye, and tissue donation, and to celebrate the success of transplantation.

According to Donate Life Indiana, more than 100,000 men, women and children nationally are waiting at any given moment for a lifesaving organ transplant. More than 1,000 of those waiting are Hoosiers. Last year 4.2 million Hoosiers signed up to be organ donors; 276 organ donors saved the lives of others needing lifesaving transplants, 949 lifesaving organs were transplanted to recipients.

Lewis was 54 when her kidneys failed. Her health issues were part of a long-line of kidney disease in her family. Her mother’s kidney failed when she was in her 70s; her sister also underwent a kidney transplant at IU Health.

“When you learn your kidneys are failing it’s one of the worst days of your life, but when you have your new kidney, it’s unbelievable,” said Lewis, a resident of Michigan City, Ind. “It was a nightmare at the time but nothing better could have happened to me. It has changed my direction in life. People say, ‘every day is a gift,’ and unfortunately transplant patients really know what that means.”

Lewis started her care at another hospital and transferred to IU Health in the care of Dr. Asif Sharfuddin. She was on dialysis for nine months and received her new kidney in the surgical care of Dr. John Powelson. She knows she could receive ongoing care closer to home, but she chooses to come back to IU Health Indianapolis.

“I’ve never looked back since coming to IU Health. It’s like you’re the only patient and the most important person there,” said Lewis, who now returns for lab work twice a year. “It goes beyond being a patient. They’re excited with all your accomplishments and the things you go through.”

She has also learned through transplant what a tight knit group the patients are.

“At the Transplant Games the whole country comes together - transplant patients and the donor families. It’s like one big family. We have a blast supporting each other and we also remember those who haven’t made it,” said Lewis. At the last competition, team members wore initials on their shirts of transplant patients who had passed.

“What a gift it has been for me to have gotten back in the pool at age 60,” said Lewis. She won a silver in competition in Houston; and a bronze in San Diego in the back stroke.

In competition in Utah, she remembers a young man struggling to complete the race. Team members jumped into the water and swam the rest of the laps with him cheering him on. In Houston, when a donor family member placed the ribbon around a recipient’s neck, the recipient took off the medal and handed it to the donor’s mother.

“We never know how much time we have but we know how much more time we’ve been given thanks to our donors. That’s all time worth living,” said Lewis.

In addition to participating in the Transplant Games, she continues to work full-time, recently completing 22 years of service in accounts receivable and HR with Decker Vacuum Technologies. Lewis is also active with the Indiana Donor Network. In her spare time she enjoys gardening and volunteering at various organizations.

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If facing end-stage organ failure, a kidney, pancreas, liver, lung, intestine or heart transplant will help you embrace life again.