A week before Christmas in 2003, Norman Biondi gave his daughter Emily the greatest gift possible: a new lease on life. He donated a kidney to his ailing daughter, who not only has regained her health but these days is making a name for herself as a competitive athlete.
This week, Emily Biondi, 24, is scheduled to travel to Bangkok, Thailand, with her father to participate with Team USA in track and field events at the World Transplant Games.
Last year, the Ellicott City native won four medals at the National Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky., but says the world games are "a much bigger deal." She hopes to break high-jump and long-jump records.
Her first inkling that she had health problems came five years ago during a routine wisdom-tooth removal, when her dentist noticed she had unusually high blood pressure.
Biondi, a 2001 Mount Hebron graduate, says she didn't think too much of the incident at the time, and returned to finish her sophomore year at Florida Southern College, where she was studying dance and music.
By spring 2003, her health had worsened. She said she was tired all the time, had a high fever, and many mornings she was vomiting.
After returning from college to Maryland with her mother, Harriet "Honey" Biondi, she underwent tests and was shocked to learn that her kidneys had been seriously scarred, possibly from a childhood illness.
"If I had done nothing, my kidneys would have failed," she said. "I would have been dead."
Biondi enrolled at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she took a full course load to ensure that her insurance company would continue to cover her thrice-weekly hemodialysis treatments.
"It was really, really hard," she said. "I didn't have energy. It was hard to get up in the morning. It was hard just to walk across campus."
The hemodialysis "was difficult because everyone else in the unit is old, like 80 years old, and I'm a 20-year-old college girl," she said.
On Dec. 19, 2003, Biondi and her father went to the University of Maryland Medical Center to undergo the six-hour transplant surgery. Many family members had been tested, and her father was the best match.
"I never thought twice about doing this for my daughter," Norman Biondi, 53, a financial planner, said last week. "We were close before, but the surgery, the sharing of an organ, has made us even closer. We're very close."
"It was really, really hard to watch him be taken away to go in to surgery," Emily recalled.
"There was definitely some anxiety for both of us going in to it," Norman Biondi said. "[After the procedure], she was pretty darn peppy. She actually came to visit me in the hospital."
Despite one rejection episode, which is common for transplant recipients during the first year, Emily Biondi recovered well, as did her father. She credits her success to a healthy and active life - including swimming and dancing, as well as the medical team at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
When she competed with Team Maryland in the 2006 National Transplant Games, she was the youngest member of the team; the oldest was 65.
She brought home a gold medal for the long jump, a silver medal in the 200 meter-run, a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke, and a silver medal for the 5K run, which she ran with her father.
"He pushed me to do it," she said of her father. "He was right there with me the whole time. We crossed the finish line together."
At this year's World Transplant Games, she plans to compete in the long jump, high jump, 200-meter dash and 4x100 relays. Competition is to begin Sunday.
Thanks to training from coaches at Mount Hebron High School and Howard Community College, she said she is confident she will do well in her events.
"I am so pumped about Thailand," Norman Biondi said. "I cannot tell you how pleased I am that Emily decided to go for this. ... She hadn't even tried the high jump until just a few months before."
Emily Biondi is also excited for the "new cultural experience" she will have by touring Thailand with her father.
"This new lease on life is not going to last forever," she said, noting that many transplant recipients experience problems more than a decade after the initial surgery. "I have to enjoy it while it lasts."
When she returns from Thailand, she is planning to tour with illusionist Shawn Anthony as an assistant on his 2008 World Magic Tour.
Next spring, she hopes to complete the two remaining classes at UMBC needed for her degree in health administration and public policy, which she says she wants to use to help other transplant recipients. She is also a volunteer for Living Legacy, a foundation that coordinates organ donations.
Donating an organ "is saving someone's life. It's being a hero," she said. "My dad is a hero."
Information about organ transplants can be found at mdtransplant.org. Updates about Emily Biondi's trip to the World Games can be found on her Web site, emilybiondi.com.