Kevin Lewis intended to take in the opening round of the girls Sweet Sixteen on March 12, because that's what he's done every year since 1996.
Lewis has attended the tournament in Bowling Green, Richmond, Frankfort, Bowling Green (again), Highland Heights and now Lexington. In a typical year, the Lewis County High School guidance counselor and former Lady Lions head coach goes with Lewis County coach Jay Fite, Raceland coach Ron Keeton, Lady Rams assistant Nick Lemon, The Daily Independent photographer Kevin Goldy and a rotating cast of other coaches and basketball-minded people.
But typical in no way applied to this year's Sweet Sixteen: it was postponed indefinitely five games in and later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lewis and his family never made it to Lexington.
That may have worked out for the best. Lewis didn't know it for certain at the time, but he needed a liver transplant due to non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Lewis knew he was sick, having spent 12 days at Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth in February and five of them in the ICU. He got out just hours before oldest daughter Macy's Senior Day festivities at Lewis County on Feb. 15 — which had already been postponed a week, with other seniors' family members' blessing, including a grandmother traveling from Florida, in hopes Lewis could attend.
"When I did get out (at SOMC), they basically told me, this is a Band-Aid," Lewis said. "'You're getting out; you're getting to go do what you want, to be with your daughter, but this isn't gonna go away.' After about a month, I told my wife one weekend, 'The Band-Aid's been pulled off.'"
Nine days after the games he missed, including 16th Region Tournament champion Russell's never-fulfilled date at Rupp Arena, Lewis went on the liver transplant list.
Nine days after that, they found him one. Then it was time for late-night high-stakes surgery, isolated from his family because of the threat of the coronavirus and with the world asleep — except at least one close friend.
Said Fite: "It just turned into kind of a scary situation."
Going way back
Lewis and Fite met in 1993, the autumn of which began the last school year at Tollesboro High School before it was absorbed by Lewis County.
The move was fraught with political and sociological implications — many residents of Tollesboro, located on the far western border of Lewis County, didn't want to their kids to go to school in Vanceburg, located a 16-mile drive east.
Lewis had his feet in both camps in that 1993-94 school year — he taught at Lewis County Middle School by day and assisted Tollesboro boys basketball coach Randy Harrison in the afternoons and evenings.
"The last year they didn't play," Lewis said of the Lions and the Wildcats, who despite being in the same county were in different regions, owing largely to Tollesboro aligning itself with 10th Region country. He added with a chuckle, "Normally we did, but that year we did not, which, I was very happy."
Fite was a junior that season at Tollesboro. He transferred to Mason County instead of attending Lewis County for his senior year, but ended up in Vanceburg anyway when he took over as the Lady Lions' coach in 2003 — two seasons after Lewis vacated that spot, having stepped aside after seven seasons as the program's winningest coach.
Fite coached Lewis County's girls for two seasons, took over Bracken County's boys for two years and returned to Vanceburg as a boys assistant for two more seasons before beginning a second stint as Lewis County's girls coach that continues today.
At that point, Fite's relationship with Lewis was rekindled. They share a handful of commonalities: both have piloted the Lady Lions, both live in Tollesboro, and they also work closely together at school, with Lewis a guidance counselor and Fite a credit recovery teacher — helping students who are behind get caught up.
They’re also close on the Lady Lions’ all-time wins list. Fite surpassed Lewis for top spot in that group.
"I get to talk to Kevin a lot about the students and what they need," Fite said. "That kinda started things for us as well outside of basketball, and then he only lives a couple miles from me. Once we really started hanging out a little bit, touching base with basketball, we got to do some other things here around the house."
By 2011, that included the beginning of a tradition of attending the girls state tournament together. By happenstance, Fite and Lewis bumped into Keeton, then a Lady Rams assistant, and his boss, then-Raceland girls head coach Bob Trimble, at E.A. Diddle Arena.
"We sat together watching the games, ended up having a meal together," Keeton said, "and it's kinda evolved into this friendship that we all have."
The coaches' relationship has progressed to include regular group texting, annual attendance at the Hop Brown Golf Scramble in the summer and genuine concern for each other's families and players.
"I know Ron talks a lot about basketball being about relationships, and it's fallen into that mold," Fite said. "It's a great thing to see these opposing coaches that actually care about not just me, but about players and families of those players."
That also includes Lewis, who hasn't coached varsity basketball since 2002 — he's done stints as a Lewis County football assistant, softball head and assistant coach, and assistant middle school girls basketball coach to Kirk Ruggles since then — but has fit into the group of current coaches.
Lewis is also close to Lewis County assistant Scott Osborne, another fellow Tollesboro resident who has attended at least one state tournament with the group and who coached Central Elementary’s team with Lewis for four years when Lewis’s daughters played there.
Osborne works closely with Fite and Lewis as well as Lewis County’s Youth Service Center coordinator.
Still another Tollesboro/Lewis County connection: Ruggles was a senior for the Wildcats in their last season, the year Lewis coached there, and spent some time on Fite’s high school staff.
Lewis has befriended Keeton and Lemon and has another tie to Raceland's staff — Lady Rams assistant Bob Bryson was the first coach Lewis ever went up against in a varsity game. He skippered Greenup County when the Lady Lions met the Lady Musketeers in the 1995-96 season opener.
They all shared a special moment on Jan. 3, when Lewis County honored Lewis and all his former players at a game with Raceland — specially chosen because of their staffs' close relationship. Lewis also got to share it with his daughters, Lady Lions senior Macy and freshman Jaden, and wife Paula, Lewis County's director of special education and preschool.
"For it to be Ron and Nick and all of them, that was special for me," Lewis said. "At the end, after our ceremony was over, Ron and his coaching staff and his players came to me and all of them shook my hand and gave me hugs, and they gave me a team ball with their players’ and coaches’ signatures on it, and I thought that was a very special thing from them."
That was before Lewis's stint at SOMC, but Keeton could already tell his friend wasn't feeling well, he said.
"You didn't want to pry, because he is a very private man, but there was concern and you could see he was struggling, health-wise," Keeton said. "You could see he was losing weight. I believe he didn't know to the extent of how sick he was until he ended up in the ICU, but for us, coach Lemon and myself, it was pretty scary. You saw somebody that you've had so much fun with and always been a pretty strong and active guy, and ... you could tell he was struggling every time you saw him."
Personal, but not in-person
A month to the day after Lewis and his former players were feted in The Jungle, he was admitted to SOMC's ICU. Lewis's bloodwork "was just out of whack," he said, a first indication stronger measures were needed.
He got out in time for Macy's Senior Day on Feb. 15 — just under the gun, as that Saturday matinee was Lewis County's last home game — but began going to Cincinnati for lab work and tests. His first appointment at UC was Feb. 18. Lewis had two more visits there before being admitted on March 18 after being unable to complete a stress test, he said.
Three days later, Lewis, 50, went on the liver transplant list, having no idea how long he would have to be on it.
As it turned out, a liver became available on March 30. By that point, he hadn't been able to have any visitors, including his wife and daughters, for a week because of the threat of COVID-19.
Lewis didn't like that, and he didn't like the circumstances, but he was at least glad he made it in when he did.
"Just within days after me getting admitted, they were closing down floors, trying to save room," Lewis said. "No visitors, which hurt me, but other than that, I could not have asked for better timing with that."
Lewis FaceTimed with his family every night and friends from time to time, and Lewis County teachers made him a video and students sent him messages. Paula was tasked with keeping Lewis's circle up to date on his care and condition.
"We're not on Facebook or anything, my wife or I, either one," Lewis said, "but we've been told that for two people not to be on Facebook, our name's probably on there more than a lot of people that are on Facebook. ... People were saying that I was on every prayer chain you could think of in eastern Kentucky."
The night he got the liver, Lewis called Fite at about 10:15 p.m. and Paula texted Keeton around 11 that he was going into surgery immediately.
"I was shocked, like, this has been nine days," said Keeton, who had expected potentially a much longer wait for a liver.
Lewis went under the knife just after midnight on March 31.
"You're really trying to be optimistic, and you know it's a very dangerous surgery," Keeton said. "I didn't sleep at all that night. I laid here reading stories about what was going on with the pandemic and tried to play a few card games on my phone."
‘Right now, I feel good’
Keeton's restless night was interrupted — pleasantly — at about 5:45 a.m. when Paula texted him that the surgery had gone well.
Lewis didn't get out until April 6 — he had to spend some more time in the ICU first, as a matter of policy — but he feels "the best I've felt in two or three years," he said.
Lewis is in the "initial recovery phase" for four to six weeks, he said, during which time he can't drive and can't be alone.
"I feel stronger, there's no doubt about it," Lewis said. "Of course, you still have some doubt. So far everything seems to just be going perfect. And I know this is gonna be an uphill grind; everything's not gonna be perfect along the way; I know I'm gonna have setbacks along the way.
"Right now, I feel good."
His colleagues can tell. Although they haven't been able to visit Lewis in person, Keeton and Fite have spoken with him on the phone.
"He called me after he had gotten a little bit of rest," Keeton said, "and he sounded like his old self. You could tell immediately that he wasn't as tired."
Added Fite: "He sounds much better, he looks much better, and hopefully things are definitely moving in the right direction for him."
A return to normalcy
In addition to his aforementioned friends, Lewis has a long line of people toward whom he feels gratitude — Lewis County Schools superintendent Jamie Weddington and high school principal Jack Lykins, and all of the medical personnel he encountered during his saga, including Drs. Theodore Tanke and Jesse Houghton at SOMC, nurse practitioners Jason Swords and Farryn Bussa, and some staffers at SOMC whom Lewis had taught or served as guidance counselor.
"I thought that was great," Lewis said, "to see our homegrown kids treat you like that and know exactly what's going on."
Lewis came away from the experience with an appreciation for organ donation. He hopes to meet the family of the person whose liver he now has to express his gratitude, though he said he'd understand if that doesn't work out.
"We have actually had people reach out and say that they had never thought about organ donation because they had never known anybody to receive one," Paula said, "but now, I've had several people tell me that they have already added their name (to the donation registry)."
April is National Donate Life Month.
Lewis learned one more lesson he's happy to impart.
"Number one, take care of yourself health-wise," he said. "It was a matter of me not going to the doctor like I should have been. ... I'm a stubborn person, I'll say that. But if you think something is wrong, find out what it is."
He finally did. Now he's back to the normal life of a parent of two high schoolers. Macy is bound for Morehead State in the fall — assuming the need for social distancing and sheltering at home has receded by then. Keeton is already working on getting her a job in the athletic department — the same position his graduating daughter, Krystal, currently holds. And Lewis is looking forward to spending three more years working at Lewis County as Jaden attends there.
"We've gotten to sit down and spend a lot of time together, just me and them," Lewis said of his daughters. "I'm trying to enjoy every minute I can of both of them."
A precious gift and a blessed return to normalcy.
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