In a moment, EHS ‘67 grads gather to support classmate

By on September 11, 2019

Ephrata High School’s Class of 1967 has always been there for each other, so when one of their own was going through a traumatic event, they came together to offer their support.

Libby Barwis, Class of 1967, and an Ephrata native, was living in Florida when the family discovered that her daughter, Jill, 45, was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease, making a kidney transplant imperative.

Close friend and former classmate Gail Witwer learned that the operation was going to take place at a Pennsylvania hospital, so she marshaled the troops for a large summer support-picnic at her home.

“I wanted to do the picnic for Libby because I knew she needed our support,” Witwer said. “When I knew Libby was coming back to the area for the transplant, I wanted to ask her to dinner, but then I thought how nice it would be if I could get some of her classmates together and we’d welcome her back to town.

“I only had a few days to do it, and unfortunately, it wasn’t under the best circumstances, but at least it had a good outcome,” Witwer said.

Libby’s daughter, Jill, had a rare condition called “anti-GBM” disease, or glomerular basement membrane disease, a malady so rare it only strikes about 200 people throughout the world.

Jill lives with her husband and four children in Bucks County, and is employed by a company that deals in international business.

She began with flu-like symptoms which progressed in a few weeks time to complete kidney failure, or end-stage renal disease.

Dialysis three times a week kept her alive, but weak.

“I would be so tired,” Jill said. “It cleans the blood to keep you alive, but there was never a day that I felt good.”

She was on dialysis for 17 months. Doctors told her that her best hope would be for a kidney donor.

Jill began a Facebook page, reaching out to any possible donors.

Libby Kochel Barwis and the Ephrata Class of 1967

 

Libby Kochel Barwis and the Ephrata Class of 1967

She also created a video about her situation, as well as to educate people about the disease. The site created good feedback, including a few surprises, Jill said.

“Even strangers were willing to get tested (to see if they’d be a match),” Jill said. “It showed me there are so many good people in the world.”

While going through the dark days of the illness, Jill said she built a support system of people who would pray for her and be there for her.

“On those especially hard days, it was helpful knowing there were people beside me,” Jill said.

Libby’s sister, Janet, also resided in Florida, and as it turned out, Janet’s daughter, Mindy, 40, was a good match to give Jill a kidney.

On July 13, Jill received the donor kidney from her cousin in a 12-hour operation in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“Within two days post-surgery, I felt like myself again,” Jill said. “It truly is a miracle.” Mindy stayed in Pennsylvania for a few days to recover before flying home to Florida.

“Jill is doing amazingly well; it’s great to see her being the person she was before,” Libby said. “I can’t tell you how joyful we are and how grateful to Mindy.”

“Now we want to educate people about kidney disease and encourage people to be donors,” Libby added.

Libby was one of a small group of classmates who stayed close through the years.

Those friends included Libby and Gail, and Cindy Kauffman, Kathy Kiefer, Madelynn Riedel, and the late Valerie Hoffman.

Hoffman was a retired guidance counselor and was the life of the party, Witwer said.

After Hoffman’s passing last year, Witwer organized a memorial service and butterfly release for her good friend.

The group has been getting together a few times a year, as schedules permitted.

“We call it our therapy sessions” Witwer said.

Libby and Gail are especially close due in part to their proximity while growing up.

“I was very close to my grandparents who lived on Park Avenue and Libby’s family lived across the street,” Witwer said. “Libby and I were in the flag unit in high school and went to the United

Methodist Church; we’ve been together since we were knee-high to a grasshopper.”
A number of years ago, Witwer made a New Year’s resolution that she was going to keep in touch with the buddies who were always important to her.

“It’s the only resolution I’ve ever kept,” Witwer said.
For her next event, Witwer, a retired elementary teacher, is organizing a “Happy 70th Birthday Party” for the entire Class of 1967.

“We’re all turning 70 sometime in the year, and we were at each other’s 16th birthday parties, so now we can be at our 70th birthday party, too,” Witwer said.

The huge Class of 1967 birthday party will take place in September, on the Saturday of Ephrata Fair Week, in the AmVets building.

“It’s nothing more than sitting around and catching up, but that’s great fun,” Witwer said.
Invitations have been sent to more than 200 classmates.

Also helping to organize the 70th birthday party are classmates Jeff Donohue, Barry Rupp and Sharon Czabafy.

Changed addresses are making it difficult to find everybody, but they are doing their best.

“It’s so nice to have this cadre of friends,” Witwer said. “We just sit and chat and reminisce and that’s great.”

Marylouise Sholly is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review.

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