Every so often, we hear an inspiring story of hope and survival that reminds us to put things into perspective.
In May 2015, Diana Donnarumma graduated from the University of Miami and had begun working at a PR firm in downtown Miami where she was living full-time. A successful student and working professional, she did not expect she would also be a multi-organ transplant survivor.
Since she was seven years old, Donnarumma had been in and out of hospitals with constant infections, fevers, and no concrete diagnosis. Determined to put her unpredictable health behind her, Donnarumma came to UM determined to graduate on time. She majored in public relations and minored in marketing and Spanish.
All seemed well until her junior year when Donnarumma began suffering from fatigue, brain fog, unstable blood pressure, headaches, and abdominal pain, forcing her to take a medical leave. Doctors diagnosed her with an auto-immune disease called dysautonomia, a dysfunction of the nerve that regulates nonvoluntary body functions such as your heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. As if that wasn’t bad enough, specialists also discovered that Donnarumma had limited motility in her gastrointestinal tract, preventing her from digesting food normally. By the fall, she could no longer eat food without vomiting and was instructed to return to her home in Clarence, New York, where she would receive immediate intensive care.
Now in her mid-20s, a time when most are building careers and socializing with friends, Donnarumma’s health was in rapid decline. Doctors then diagnosed her with gastroparesis, a condition that affects the stomach muscles and prevents proper stomach emptying, prompting the removal of her colon. A year later, Donnarumma was still receiving nutrition and water through an IV with no end in sight to her daily bouts of violent vomiting.
Long nights in the waiting rooms at the hospital and many overnight stays later, Donnarumma began to accept she was always going to have to eat through an IV. But one thing she couldn’t get over was her bulky, black, and ugly feeding backpack she was required to carry with her everywhere. Together, Donnarumma and her mother, Debra, created their online business, Chronically Fit, featuring colorful, customized medical backpacks for people on IV nutrition or central feeding lines.
“My goal was to close the gap between fashion and medicine,” said Donnarumma, explaining that the ugly backpacks made her feel even more isolated from everyone else. Now with customers from all over the world, Chronically Fit works to lift the spirit of others.
On the evening of Oct. 23, 2017, Donnarumma’s prayers were finally answered, after receiving a phone call informing her that she had been matched with an organ donor. Jumping on the earliest flight to Washington D.C., she couldn’t help but think about the young woman from Texas who tragically passed away the night before and who was about to save her life. Eight hours of surgery later, Donnarumma now has a new small intestine to help her carry her digestive load and an exponentially better quality of life. Donnarumma’s organ donor saved six more lives that day, as well.
According to the American Transplant Foundation, an average of 20 people die each day from a lack of available organs, where just one organ donor can save up to eight lives. Currently, there are as many people dying per year of organ disease as are on the transplant waiting list. Donnarumma was lucky enough to be matched in time to save her life, but many are not as fortunate.
Recently, Donnarumma came back to UM to visit the professors and friends who supported her, as well as to share her story with students to remind them to look for the good in everything.
Donnarumma’s closing words to the class were to not stress over grades, find a blessing in the storm, and, most importantly, “live to be happy because life can be fragile.”