Thiwat Thiwat outside Deering High School a few weeks after receiving his new kidney. (Portland Phoenix/Greg Levinsky)
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Time moves at pace again.

Those are Thiwat Thiwat’s beautiful words, an excerpt from the powerful post he wrote in September to announce the news on social media. After more than six years battling kidney failure, the former Deering High School basketball star finally received a kidney transplant last month. A new beginning dawns on the heels of a harrowing journey’s end.

“Dialysis takes a toll on you mentally and physically, so your perception of time gets warped, limiting the time that you have to do the things you love with the people you love,” Thiwat, 28, told me on a brisk Sunday morning outside of the high school he helped lead to the 2011 Class A state championship, the Rams’ most recent title of such magnitude recent in any team sport. “Now, I’ve got time. Whatever I want to do, there are no restrictions physically or mentally. Time wise, the possibilities are endless.”

Born in an Ethiopian refugee camp after his family fled war in Sudan, Thiwat came to the United States when he was four with his father, an uncle, siblings and cousins. He became a U.S. citizen after graduating from Deering in 2013.

Thiwat’s health began deteriorating in earnest the summer before his senior year of high school, less than six months after the tenacious 6-foot-4 forward scored 15 points in the aforementioned state championship game. Playing in a summer league game, Thiwat made a steal on the first play of the game. Normally he’d attack the rim for a dunk. Rather, sudden fatigue set in. Thiwat asked to come out of the game.

Shortly after, on the heels of his 18th birthday, Thiwat was diagnosed with kidney disease and began medication. Three years later, he started dialysis treatments for kidney failure, which he underwent every other day, for six years, except for weekends. At first, Thiwat could live mostly normally despite his kidney failure. He took college classes, first at Rhode Island College, where he hoped to play basketball, but his health prevented him from doing so. He moved back to Maine and continued college classes and working off and on since. But when his MaineCare health insurance expired after his 21st birthday, Thiwat found himself caught in an undeserved battle with the health care system. With assistance from Sen. Susan Collins office, who reportedly helped expedite necessary paperwork, Thiwat obtained coverage to continue treatment and remain on a kidney transplant list.

“A lot of people in their early 20s use that as time to figure out themselves and their career paths, so I kind of lost a lot of the time to do that,” Thiwat said. “It’s just been a setback, but I try to keep things in perspective.”

As the years progressed, Thiwat struggled to bounce back from dialysis. It would take four, then six, then eight hours to feel like himself after a dialysis treatment. Yet Thiwat continued playing basketball recreationally during dialysis, through the full-body cramps and soreness. He also runs various adult pickup leagues throughout southern Maine. Thiwat stayed in shape as best he could, and kept up judiciously with medication and treatment to ensure a smooth transplant.

Even when doctors found a match, getting his new kidney didn’t go as planned. In late August, Thiwat received word of a match in Maine. Complications with the potential donor prohibited the transplant from occurring. A week later, Thiwat got a call to head to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, albeit “not as excited as the first time before the experience that had just happened.”

Fortunately, everything went according to plan. Thiwat expects his new kidney to last 25-30 years. He knows the kidney came from a deceased donor, a 24-year-old male. While privacy concerns prohibit Thiwat from knowing exactly who the donor was, he’s participating in a program where he can write a letter to the family of the donor.

“I’m going to let them know that this changed my life,” Thiwat said. Even though they’ve lost somebody, a loved one, something good came out of it.”

Had Thiwat received his new kidney when initially anticipated — 3 months after his kidney failure diagnosis — he would’ve focused his energy on playing college basketball. Instead, he’s focused on his studies, first pursuing an associates, then a bachelor’s, in business management and sports management. Thiwat aspires to a basketball coaching career.

“I just want to help the next wave of kids coming up get in the right headspace about the sport and use it as a tool to get you to where you want to go,” Thiwat said. “Once I got the kidney, it’s a whole different world.”

Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].


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