Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Hospitals
Kristen Batkiewicz and her brother Jason Korkosz are seen in University of Chicago Hospital just before their surgeries on Oct. 29, 2019.
By Carol McGowan
We hear of teachers giving, but Jason Korkosz has taken that idea it to a whole new level.
Korkosz is a physical and driver education teacher at Argo Community High School in Summit. He’s also the assistant football and track coach.
Before staff returned from this year’s winter break, Argo Principal Brandon Cotter sent an email to employees, letting them know something many didn’t. Korkosz was a literal life-saver to his sister, Kristen Batkiewicz, who is a sixth-grade school teacher at Simmons Middle School in Oak Lawn, where the siblings grew up.
Batkiewicz, now 37, was diagnosed with a progressive liver disease as a teen. In April 2019, Batkiewicz and her family found out that her liver was failing after years of primary sclerosing cholangitis, which causes inflammation and scarring of her bile ducts. The bile builds up over time and eventually causes the liver to fail. She was otherwise healthy, and therefore was not high on an organ waiting list.
“ Kristen was in and out of the hospital every two to three months,” Korkosz said. “Her quality of life was not good.”
The longer she waited for an organ, the odds for success would be lower. A living donation was her best chance, doctors told her. The liver has the capacity to regenerate and that makes it a good source for living donations.
She was hesitant to ask people to make that kind of sacrifice. “It’s not like you are asking for a simple favor, or to borrow something,” she said. “You are asking someone to undergo major surgery and recovery for you.”
But the people in her circle wanted to help and were tested as potential donors. Turned out that her brother had the same blood type, was of the right age and was healthy, so he underwent more testing of his own to make sure he was the right one to donate and that it would be a great outcome for the both of them.
In October of 2019, about two-thirds of his liver — the right lobe —was removed at the University of Chicago Hospital, and transplanted in to Batkiewicz. They then started the long road to recovery together on the same floor at the hospital.
“Jason came to my room often to check on me and encourage me,” she said. “We watched lots of football games and Netflix shows together.”
Both Korkosz and Batkiewicz have recovered and are doing well, even during the pandemic. Korkosz returned to work at Argo in January 2020 and his liver had grown back to about 90 percent of its original size. His sister returned to her job at Simmons just in time to teach remotely thanks to the pandemic.
Kristen didn’t realize how sick she had been until after the transplant.
“ Chronic pain and fatigue had become my norm,” she said. “With a new liver, I felt healthy and energized for the first time in a long time.”
More than 13,000 people are on the waiting list for a new liver in this country, and because the need for donor organs far exceeds the number of livers available for transplant, about 1,500 Americans die each year while waiting. That has inspired both siblings to help raise awareness of the living donation program.
Back at Argo, Cotter said that what Korkosz did goes far beyond being a great guy.
He said Korkosz was friendly, positive and genuine, and that even though medical procedures are light years ahead of where they used to be, nothing is guaranteed.
He also said he could not express in words how much he looks up to Korkosz for what he did and is extremely proud that he gets to work with him.
“ Jason is a shining example of Argo and the amazing people that are there,” Cotter said. He hopes everyone can take inspiration from Korkosz’s selfless act and work toward making 2021 a better year.
Gretchen Rubin, a senior communications specialist at UChicago Medicine, contributed to this report.