Emily Biondi, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, never intended to work toward a degree in health administration and public policy. It's just that her young life took a detour at the close of her sophomore year in 2003 at Florida Southern College, where she was studying dance and music.
At 19, she was experiencing total kidney failure.
Biondi had been feeling ill but thought she had just contracted a bad strain of influenza. Biondi says she has since learned that with kidney failure, you might notice you're in serious trouble only when you have 10 percent of function left in one kidney - and by that time, it's often too late to salvage what remains. According to the Mayo Clinic Web site, loss of kidney function can occur over time; some persons don't notice early signs or symptoms at all.
Biondi, a 2001 Mount Hebron High School graduate, returned home to Ellicott City and immediately began a nine-month course of dialysis, three times a week, while a search for an appropriate donor within the family was launched. It turned out that her father, Norm, was a match.
Biondi enrolled for the fall 2003 semester at UMBC, commuting and working around the arduous dialysis schedule. On Dec. 19, during the winter break, she and her father went in for the surgery at the Transplant Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. The next month, she was back at UMBC for the spring semester.
"For a while," said Biondi, "just walking to class - that was a workout."
Biondi's mother, Honey, said, "I tried to get her to use a wheeling backpack, but she wouldn't have it."
Biondi, who will turn 23 next month, has definitely ramped up the workouts since her transplant. This week, and for much of the past year, Biondi has been preparing to compete in the National Kidney Foundation 2006 U.S. Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky., a six-day event starting today.
The Transplant Games is an Olympic-style event showcasing persons who have received major transplants - including kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas and bone marrow. This year, 1,253 athletes will compete in a variety of events, including racquetball, track and field, basketball and bowling.
Biondi is competing in the 200-meter run, the long jump and the 100-meter backstroke, and as a member of the 50-meter freestyle relay swim team. She also is running in a noncompetitive 5-kilometer event with her father.
Biondi says Tony Bell, the track coach at Mount Hebron High School, has helped her prepare, writing up a workout schedule for her. Biondi attended the high school's track practice toward the end of the season this past year for a couple of days and, at her father's suggestion, tried the long jump, where her long, strong dancer's legs might provide an advantage.
"Dad said I didn't look any better or worse than the other high school students out there," said Biondi, so she added the long jump to her lineup of events.
Latrice Price, volunteer coordinator at the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland and manager of Team Maryland, is bringing this year's group of 12 athletes to represent the state in the games.
"In 2004, we took 16 people and brought home 19 medals," said Price.
Price said Biondi is the youngest member of the team, with the oldest at 65. "We have several kidney transplant competitors, two double-lung recipients, and heart and liver transplant athletes on the team," she said.
Price said she recruits for the team at the two transplant centers in Maryland - the one at the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center. Price began meeting with potential participants as soon as the 2004 U.S. Transplant Games concluded, to help the athletes raise funds.
Understandably, the transplant experience has changed Biondi.
"I would never have considered doing anything in the medical field before," she said. "It's because of what I've gone through and the patient perspective I have."
Biondi volunteers, networking with other young patients to help them cope with the experience. She also has done public speaking, addressing professionals in the field of dialysis and renal disease from her perspective as a young transplant recipient.
Biondi says she gets a kick from the surprised reaction that people have when they discover she has had a major organ transplant. "It's not that I'm ashamed," she said. "It's just that people who have organ transplants aren't all old or sickly. People with organ transplants can do almost anything."
"I'm really looking forward to meeting other [transplant recipients] my age at the games," she said.
Of competing in Louisville, Biondi said, "I'm not really concerned about the competition. Of course, it would be really cool to bring home a medal."
She added: "I'm more concerned about the singing."
The 5-foot-5-inch Biondi has gotten back into music and dancing, recently finishing a run as Sandy, the female lead in the musical Grease, at Lorenzo's Timonium Dinner Theatre. She sent in an audition tape to the U.S. Transplant Games and was selected to perform "You Raise Me Up" at the event's Living Donor Recognition Ceremony.
The U.S. Transplant Games provides a number of programs and activities for donor families, who often attend the events to witness firsthand the benefits of organ donation. The National Kidney Foundation states that more than 91,000 people are awaiting life-saving organs in this country, and about two-thirds of those are for kidneys. One of the goals of the U.S. Transplant Games, according to its Web site, is "to demonstrate to the public the collective and individual successes of the life-restoring therapy of organ transplantation."
Biondi, with her fit physique and easy smile, could be a symbol for the games. She also will perform a song at the closing ceremony, with a live band and back-up dancers - an energetic number called "Feeling Good."
If you are interested in organ donation, contact the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland at 410-242-7000, or visit their Web site at www.mdtransplant.org.