LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sheri Rukavina was enjoying the 2009 Keeneland Spring Reunion in Lexington with girlfriends when a bold and handsome stranger jumped off a party bus and strolled up to her.
“Hi. My name is Mark,” he told her. “I am a doctor.”
Sheri was going to marry this recent University of Louisville medical school graduate, Mark Rukavina, in 2013, after dating him throughout his emergency medicine residency.
During their years together, Mark shared his love of the Thunder Over Louisville and Kentucky Derby Festival Chow Wagon with Sheri, and they always tried to get to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby, where he was known to wear a seersucker suit.
In 2019, Mark passed away from a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer, but this year Sheri will honor his memory in Thurby with a personalized fascinator to raise awareness for organ donation.
The eye-catching helmet was designed by Dr. Ilana Kogan, a Prospect-based milliner known as “The Hat Doctor”, full-time radiologist and medical school classmate of Sheri’s late husband.
Mark was on the verge of death when he received a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in 2019. It ultimately gave him just four more months to live — not the 10 years he had hoped — but those are memories that Sheri will always hold dear.
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This transplant meant four more months with their two young children, going to the pool and church together and planning for the future.
“I don’t know Mark’s organ donor family,” she said, “but I’ll be forever grateful to them because once he got that liver, it was literally the next day: no more brown in his eyes, no more brown in his skin… All of a sudden, it all goes away.
Sheri is attending Thursday’s races on behalf of Donate Life KY to represent and honor families affected by organ and tissue donation. The organization is hosting its Volunteer Appreciation Day at the track, and the third race, which will take place around 1:45 p.m., has been named the Donate Life race.
Donate Life America, the national nonprofit organization that advocates organ, eye and tissue donation, uses blue and green as colors, while butterflies symbolize rebirth.
“Ilana took that and ran away,” Sheri said. “And she just did an amazing job with it.”
Mounted on a jewel-encrusted headband, a mix of light blue and green butterflies flutter delicately above Sheri’s head. The rest of Sheri’s Thurby outfit will be neutral so Kogan’s work — and the message he carries — really shines.
Donate Life KY will also be handing out pins as a keepsake to Thurby attendees dressed in blue and green.
The two women never met before Mark died, despite his best efforts.
“‘I have a friend who makes hats. You should ask her to make you a hat,'” Sheri recalled.
“And honestly, it was like, ‘Oh, one of your friends from med school is making a hat? I bet they’re really awesome,'” she deadpanned before laughing with Kogan.
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Kogan is one of four official Kentucky Derby Museum milliners in 2022 and had her busiest year yet, with more than 700 hats and fascinators sold.
Originally from New York, Kogan moved to Louisville for medical school in 2005 and had no idea of the Kentucky Derby and its customs. Always a “super crafty person”, Kogan decided to give it a go.
“I got my first taste of Kentucky,” she said of making hats for herself and her friends.
The following year, she sold these hats on eBay, launching her accidental business. Through residency, a marriage, and two children, Kogan continued to make hats, perfecting his technique along the way.
“He would be so happy,” Kogan said of their collaboration. “He would love that. He would probably be drinking bourbon with my husband right now.”
Facts about organ donation:
- More than 2 million Kentuckians are registered as organ donors
- More than 1,000 Kentuckians waiting for organ transplants
- About 41,354 successful organ transplants were performed nationwide in 2021
- Organs such as kidneys, heart, liver, lungs and pancreas can be transplanted, as can tissues such as bones, skin, corneas and ligaments.
- To register as an organ donor, go to RegisterMe.org, register through the iPhone Health app, or update your status when renewing your driver’s license.
Source: Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates