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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Plant City woman awaiting new liver inspires others with her spirit

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PLANT CITY Lynette Kozelenko is quite literally in the fight of her life.

She has an incurable liver condition that causes Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Her only hope is a transplant.

But she's determined to make the best of it, trying to stay positive and in shape while she awaits a new liver.

"My choices are to get up and stay strong or stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. I was dealt a bad deck but I don't want to sit around and say 'woe is me.' I want to get better," she said.

Those around the 48-year-old find her inspiring.

Her doctor, Guy W. Neff, chief of hepatology at Tampa General Hospital, said she has one of the best mental outlooks he's ever encountered among patients facing such a prognosis.

"I wish every one of my patients was that way; she's a model patient," Neff said. "She gets the most out of every day and as a doctor that's what you want to see."

She suffers from hepatic encephalopathy, a condition that develops in patients with cirrhosis of the liver. Toxins no longer filtered by the liver reach the brain, and reoccurring symptoms include confusion, forgetfullness and dementia.

Kozelenko first noticed problems in December 2007, when she started having difficulties on her longtime job as a payroll and office manager.

Kozelenko, a 1982 Plant City High graduate who has lived here since 1979, said her liver was damaged by a chemical exposure at work.

She made excuses or tried to mask her problems as long as she could from everyone - co-workers, friends and family.

Finally, she could hide it no more as the condition worsened. She was diagnosed in 2008.

Her best friend since their days at Plant City High, Darlene Henry, said Kozelenko has times when she can't communicate.

"She'll just have a blank stare. It can last two seconds, it can last five minutes," Henry said.

Her friend is very determined and shakes off the episodes. "She doesn't like to ask for help," Henry said.

Kozelekno wants to make sure she's as strong as possible for the transplant by staying in shape. She walks and works out regularly at the Plant City Family YMCA under the guidance of instructor Victoria Dunn. Henry is often her exercise partner.

Kozelenko's photo is on a poster at the YMCA touting a fundraising drive.

"She's inspiring to me," said Reagan Thomas, YMCA membership director who also helps Kozelenko. "You think 'if she can do it, then I can too.'"

Kozelenko is one of four patients around the United States profiled in a recently released documentary on hepatic encephalopathy. A film crew for "Wrestling the Monster" spent three days with Kozelenko in and around Plant City.

Kozelenko's doctor said it's impossible to say when she might receive a transplant. There's such a shortage of organs that only the sickest patients receive them, and so far Kozelenko's liver disease hasn't progressed to the critical stage, Neff said.

Kozelenko, who lives at her Plant City home with her 24-year-old son, Randy Wetherington, works with weights, walks on a treadmill and takes Zumba dance classes to stay in condition for the day when she gets that call.

"It's really mind over body," she said. "I want to keep getting better."

Twitter: @dnicholsonTrib

dnicholson@tampatrib.com

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