- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

Antonio Benedi will do almost anything to raise awareness of organ-donation programs. Even see whether he can put a little heat on a fast ball.

Such determination sent the two-time transplant recipient to the mound last night at RFK Stadium, where he threw out the first pitch when the Washington Nationals, who took on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, marked Organ Donor Awareness Day. (The Nats won, too.)

“I am very blessed to have had [an organ donation] not once, but twice,” says Mr. Benedi, 50. “That is why I am throwing a baseball.” He practiced for 15 minutes yesterday morning to make sure he could get a respectable pitch across home plate.

“It was an awesome experience,” he says. “Baseball has always been a passion of mine, but doing it for organ-donor awareness made it all that more special.”

Mr. Benedi lives in Springfield with his wife, Maria, with whom he has two sons, Tony, 20, and Jamie, 18. He is a political consultant who often works for the federal government. More to the point for his passion, he is the chairman of the board of the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, which works with the 40 hospitals and seven transplant centers in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia to obtain organs for patients who must get them to stay alive.

Representatives of the group staffed a booth at the stadium and talked to fans about becoming organ donors.

Mr. Benedi, who was appointments secretary for President George Bush, is also on the board for the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Several thousand people in the region are among the 98,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant, most for a kidney but others for a liver, pancreas or heart.

“People need to realize, if they don’t choose to be a donor, someone is going to die,” says Cindy Speas, a spokeswoman for the consortium.

Mr. Benedi received his first transplant, a liver, in 1993. After sipping two glasses of wine with dinner one Saturday night, he took an over-the-counter painkiller, and after four days lapsed into a coma. He would have died but for a liver from a person who had just died. In November of 2005, the immunodepressant drugs he was taking to keep his body from rejecting the liver shut down his kidneys.

He underwent dialysis three days a week for four months until he got the kidney transplant. “Two huge needles in your arm at 5:30 in the morning is not a fun thing,” Mr. Benedi says.

No one in his family was a match for a kidney, but family friend Toni Rowdon volunteered to donate a kidney and she was a perfect match. “She saved my life, no doubt about it,” Mr. Benedi says. “There is no other gift like it in the world.” He has been off dialysis since the transplant.

Mrs. Rowdon, 46, and Mr. Benedi talked every week or two as his kidney function weakened, but he was reluctant to allow her to risk giving up one of her own. Mrs. Rowdon, a registered nurse, had watched a friend die while waiting on an organ-transplant list, and insisted.

“You instinctively do what you’re trained to do,” she says. “You help people.”

She underwent an extensive health screening and a review of her family medical history. “There was no reason for me to think anyone in my family would need a kidney,” she says. The mother of four, ages 14 to 20, says her husband was “reticent” when she first talked to him about it, but he was persuaded once he talked to kidney transplant surgeons.

Her recovery was smooth, and she is in good health today. “There’s always a risk that I could get into a car accident and lose my kidney,” she says. But if that happens she, as a donor, would be moved to the top of the transplant list.

Mr. Benedi says myths about transplants have been passed along by television dramas. Others believe, usually falsely, that their religious faith prohibits contributing an organ, even after death. But those who want to register as organ donors can do so when they apply for a driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Virginia residents can apply on the Web at www.save7lives.org. Web sites are under construction for residents in Maryland and the District.

“Organ donation is something that needs constant work and education,” Mr. Benedi says. “I don’t think it is ever something you can say you completely accomplished.”

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