Volunteer Spotlight: Chris Kowalski speaks while he waits for a life-saving heart transplant

Chris Kowalski shared his story as a heart transplant recipient at the 2023 Inspiring Champions Symposium.

Not much will stop this volunteer from telling his story

Chris Kowalski with mascot Paws at a Detroit Tigers game this summer. He talked with high school students about donation by live video from Comerica Park that night.Chris Kowalski won’t let much get in the way of telling people about organ donation. Not even Detroit Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera.

Chris talked to high school students about his heart transplant this summer from the upper deck at Comerica Park, live via video call. As a bonus, he gave them a peek of Miggy at bat.

Chris has shared his heart transplant story hundreds of times at hundreds of places, often pausing his medical billing work to address a high school class or spending a summer Saturday volunteering at an event.

A Super Speaker

He’s a sort of Super Speaker, spreading the importance of organ donation.   “I want to honor the gift,” said Chris, 59, of Grandville. “You don’t always get a second chance. When you do, you better grasp it the best you can.”

He does, said Alison Gillum, senior community relations coordinator at Gift of Life who often does presentations with Chris.

“He’s helped me out with 15 minutes’ notice,” Alison said. “Chris was with me at events almost every weekend last summer. He doesn’t let anything get in the way of sharing his story. He’s a humble, incredible guy who’s made an impact on thousands of people.”

“I tell my story to share my gratitude,” Chris said. “I’m grateful for this gift every day I wake up. Here we are on our last legs, and we get a miracle.”

He’s hoping for another one. Chris received a new heart in 2016 after a virus damaged his. But a year later he learned vital arteries in his new heart were blocked. The condition, cardiac allograft vasculopathy, sometimes happens in transplanted hearts. It put him back on the organ waiting list, where he’s remained since 2019.

Living with the unknown

While he waits, with eight stents at work to keep his arteries open, Chris knows his heart could stop at any time.   It’s enough to make a guy want to stick close to home, maybe be super cautious.

That’s not how he rolls.

Chris Kowalski with a guest at Gift of Life's Check Your Heart open house, looking through glasses that mimic the need for a cornea transplant.

“You won’t tie me down,” Chris said. “I follow my medical protocols, but I’m not sitting still. I’d be missing baseball games and hockey games and trips to Hawaii.”

He represented Team Michigan in 2022 in the Transplant Games of America, bringing home two gold medals and a bronze for basketball, cornhole and pickleball.

“If God’s gonna take me, He’ll take me,” Chris said. “Once you accept that you’re not in control, it makes life a lot less stressful.”

So, he speaks — to high school classes as part of Gift of Life’s award-winning All of Us education program, to donor families, to health care workers.

Special collaboration

Sometimes he speaks standing next to Wendy Smith, the mother of the young man, Cody, whose heart is beating in his chest. He and Wendy have become friends. Chris gave her a stuffed teddy bear with a recording of his heartbeat inside. The two of them, along with Cody’s brother, Nic, started a Detroit Red Wings charity game, in its third year, to raise money for Gift of Life. Even more important, Chris said, is raising awareness.

Chris tells his audiences that his heart donor, Cody, helped more than 100 people with his gifts of organs and tissue.   Sometimes, people cry as he talks. That’s good, Chris said.

“You never know who you’ll touch,” he said. “All it takes is one person deciding to donate to make a difference. I can help increase the odds by sharing my story.”

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