Life is a sequence of life-changing moments. The guy at the dry cleaner counter might become your best friend. A chance meeting at a deli might become a beautiful romance. The results of a routine medical exam may forever alter the course of your life.
Or your life may literally be saved by a complete stranger.
When Phil Gorski turned 40, his wife Kelly persuaded him to get a physical. A former professional athlete, he was physically fit and felt great. So when his doctor told him he would probably need a liver transplant sometime in the next few years, he was understandably shocked.
“They said you have this thing called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis,” Phil said. “They don’t know how I got it, no one else in our family had any signs of it.”
But Phil continued to work, feeling great, until 2011. The symptoms of his failing liver finally started to emerge during a business trip.
“My coworker looked at me and said, ‘have you looked in the mirror? Your eyes are yellow,” Phil remembered. “I thought ‘Oh no!’ I literally ran to the mirror.” The next four and a half years were a miserable blur of weakness, nausea, maddening itching, dramatic weight loss, and a charming little condition called ascites.
“Ascites is when this brownish fluid builds up in your abdomen, and it doesn’t go away. They have to drain it off,” Phil explained. “I was giving them eight to ten liters a week of the stuff.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one
A girl walks into a deli…
…trips over a step and lands flat on her face. And the guy behind the counter bursts into loud laughter.
“I literally tripped into the original west side Mad Greek Deli location,” recalled Lori Kosmas with a laugh. “Walked through the front door, tripped and Pondo laughed at me. I truly thought he was a jerk.”
But there was more to Pantelis “Pondo” Kosmas than Lori knew at the time. Sure, he dabbled in modeling and was once named Portland’s most eligible bachelor by a local radio station. But right about the time Phil was learning about his liver condition, Pondo was going through a life-changing moment of his own. Still reeling from the death of his first wife Gina from breast cancer, he fought for custody of Gina’s three children – even though they were not biologically his – and won.
“I was moved to tears that day hearing their story. I thought it was amazing how this man was willing to sacrifice his life for three children that weren’t biologically his and allow his wife to die in peace,” Lori remembered. “That is truly the only reason I agreed to go out with the man I thought was a jerk!”
And the love story began. With Lori bringing two children of her own into the relationship, Pondo took on all five kids as though they were his own. And their family became seven.
The worst part is the waiting
Three different times, Kelley took Phil to the hospital and waited with him, holding his hand, while doctors prepped what they hoped would be his life-saving liver. And three times, they were sent home.
All the while, Phil’s condition – and his morale – continued to decline. As he remembers, “I was starting to wonder if this was going to happen.” Then on Valentine’s Day 2016, the phone rang.
“I hear footsteps running up the stairs, and she pops in and smiles and says, ‘it’s go time.’ That was our code. And I said, ‘don’t (mess) with me.’ She says, ‘I’m serious!’ And I immediately started to cry.”
So back to OHSU they went. Again. Except this time, it was thumbs up.
Moments before they wheeled him into surgery, Phil asked Kelley for his smartphone.
“A few months before, I had written Kelley a letter. I wanted her to know, I appreciated her. It’s such a weak word. All those episodes and all those difficult nights, I know it was killing her. I wanted her to know that it meant the world to me. I thought, I don’t know if any of our friends know how she took things on herself and never asked for help. So I put it on Facebook. She said, ‘what was that?’ I said, ‘you’ll see.’”
It’s like he knew what was coming
In winter of 2016, after a bout with pneumonia, Pondo joked with one of his employees at Mad Greek Deli that he would soon be playing golf in heaven with her departed father.
Soon after, as he and Lori traveled home from a Valentine’s Day dinner with their children, Pondo told Lori, “If I die tomorrow, I will have the fullest heart. It only took me 50 years to figure it out.”
The next day, he was gone, the victim of a fatal brain hemorrhage.
Nearly two years later, Lori can look back fondly. “Though I lost Pondo way too soon, I feel incredibly blessed and fulfilled by what he gave me in the 10 years we had together,” she said. She gets through with help from their five children – Brooklyn, 25;Austin, 23; Nick, 23; Bailey, 21; and 20-year-old Payton. “Those children have given me the strength and courage to carry on. They are so inspiring and incredible.”
He thought he would knock it out in 20 minutes
“They say to wait three months to write a letter to the family,” remembered Phil. “Keep it to one page. Thank them, express your sympathy and you’re out. I said I’ll just knock this out in 20 minutes. It took me more than two hours. I wanted to choose my words the best I could to express how sorry I was.” He took the letter to OHSU, who sent the letter to his donor’s family.
Phil and Kelly still didn’t know the identity of his life-saving donor, but there were clues. Before Phil even came home from the hospital, Kelly received a call from a friend.
“She says a cousin of ours passed away over the weekend and I’m pretty sure he was a donor,” Phil told the story. “She describes how he ran a deli and was a great guy.”
One day as Phil was taking his car in for routine service, a man who worked at the dealership pulled him aside. “I understand you recently had a liver transplant,” he said.
“He asked when this took place, and I told him Valentine’s Day,” Phil recalled. “He said, ‘my cousin passed away that day. I asked if he was a donor and he said, ‘yeah, he was.’”
The man went on to describe his cousin to Phil. “He was one of those larger than life personalities. Stories of hunting and Timbers games, and how loved he was. Owned a deli in Portland.”
Then, later that summer, answering a knock at his front door, Phil found himself face to face with his crying next door neighbor. “I think we have a mutual friend,” she said through her tears.
“She said his full name, and I said, ‘I don’t know that person.’ She says, ‘isn’t that your donor?’ I said, ‘I don’t know who my donor is,’’ explained Phil. Apparently, another neighbor had been talking to Kelly and word got around the cul-de-sac that a deli owner in Portland was Phil’s organ donor.
“I had to tell her we weren’t sure, and I felt terrible because she’s in tears. She had dated him before his first marriage and they had remained close friends. We’re both crying in my driveway and I’m thinking, ‘I hope it’s this guy!’”
Less than a week after that day, Phil received a call from OHSU. His donor’s family had answered his letter. “I asked if she can read it to me she said no we aren’t allowed to do that,” explained Phil, who continued to press the OHSU representative for information.
Were they male or female? The letter was written by a wife, so male.
How old was he? He was 49.
Did she sign it? Just her first name.
“Was it Lori? And she said yes,” Phil recalled. “I walked out and said, “Kelly, it’s Pondo.’”
Everything happens for a reason
Shortly before he was wheeled to surgery to receive the gift from Pondo that would save his life, a nurse asked Phil if he had any more questions.
“I said ‘yeah, can you please tell me how I’m supposed to not feel guilty?’ We’re holding hands and have tears of joy, and high hopes right now. But somewhere else a family is holding hands and crying because it’s the end. How am I supposed to live with that?”
Lori Kosmas offers an answer. “Pondo used to tell me everything happens for a reason,” she said. “Though my husband is no longer physically here, I find so much comfort knowing that his memory – and believe it or not, some of his organs – live on in others.” Lori has been told Pondo’s organs saved at least six lives.
“My husband was larger than life. I believe the 1200 people who attended his funeral will attest to that. I am happy and at peace knowing he was able to give the gift of life to so many. That is what he would have wanted. I believe by doing so, he continues to live.”
Phil and Lori have still never met. But their lives are forever intertwined, joined together by the larger-than-life man who lives on in both of them. Lori now owns the Mad Greek Deli and runs it just the way Pondo did.
One organ donor can save up to eight lives. The same donor can also save or improve the lives of up to 50 people by donating tissues and eyes. For more information about organ donation or becoming a donor, visit organdonor.gov. You can also learn more at the Lifesavers Breakfast through Donate Life Northwest on November 8.