Alumnus found friendship and kidney donor at UC

Scholarship and the UC community supported Mohamed Emlemdi

While the University of Cincinnati’s student body had its collegiate experience disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not the first time Mohamed Emlemdi, BUS ’21, had his education interrupted.

At the age of 19, as a Lindner Honors-PLUS (LHP) student at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business, Mohamed, known as Mo, was enjoying life. He valued the many LHP opportunities, including dedicated faculty and staff, specialized academic and experiential learning, and scholarship support, as well as the ability to live in an honors community during the first year.

“From the moment I stepped onto UC’s campus, I felt I could make a difference,” Mo says.

During winter break of his second year, Mo was scheduled to have his wisdom teeth removed. After discovering he had high blood pressure, the dentist delayed the procedure and sent him to the doctor for tests. The next evening, Mo’s life was upended when he learned he was in end-stage renal failure. He began dialysis immediately and was told he needed a new kidney. One kidney was no longer viable, the other was operating at five percent. 

He says it felt like a bad dream. 

two young men

Mohamed Emlemdi and Julian Litvak.

“At the time, I didn’t know what any of it meant and I was like, ‘how long are we talking for dialysis, a week, a month?’” he recalls.

“I saw my friends continue this normal life and I was hit by this semi-truck,” he adds. “I was bitter and angry, and I didn’t understand why it was happening to me. It took me a long time to come to peace with that and move forward.”

While learning to manage the hours of dialysis — up to 16 hours a day — Mo would drive to UC’s Uptown campus for class from his parents’ West Chester home.

He credits the UC community — friends, his UC Health physicians, Lindner faculty, staff, and his scholarship — with helping him survive this harrowing chapter.

“These were challenging times, and I was still mentally and physically coming to terms with it while trying to grasp new subjects,” Mo remembers. “My professors were super understanding of what I was going through. They didn’t shy away from letting me know it was tough or minimizing my experience.”

One person that helped normalize his life was his best friend and fellow Lindner honors student, Julian Litvak, BUS ’21. The friends, who met as first-year roommates, continued to meet for lunch and hang out between classes.

Mo didn’t know that Julian was intent on doing more than taking his mind off things. He was being tested to see if he was a donor match.

Julian, now a senior data strategy associate at Seer Interactive, admits it was a big decision to make at a young age but says he was intent on helping his friend.

“Once I found out I was a match, the decision was easy,” Julian says. “Mo always stayed positive and has come out with a positive attitude.”

The most special thing was Julian and what he did for me. That’s what took the most courage in all of this.

Mohamed Emlemdi, BUS ’21

“Julian was the best match and my surgeon said he was a better match than my blood relatives, something he doesn’t usually see,” Mo says. “Julian came from Springfield, Illinois, and was randomly placed as my roommate! It’s like the stars aligned, and he ended up being the one who saved my life.”

Julian and Mo had successful surgeries at UC Health in December 2018, one year after Mo’s initial diagnosis.

“I wouldn’t be here without Julian,” Mo says. “People are always telling me, ‘You’re so strong,’ and I feel like I wasn’t given a choice, it was something I had to do. The most special thing was Julian and what he did for me. That’s what took the most courage in all of this.”

Embraced by the UC community

The UC community continued to embrace the young men after their surgeries. A highlight was an invitation from UC President Neville G. Pinto. Mo, Julian, their families and surgeons, including Steve Woodle, MD, director of solid organ transplantation at UC Health and William A. Altemeier Professor in Research Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, attended a Cincinnati Bearcats men’s basketball game, sitting courtside with the president.

“President Pinto is an incredible person, down to earth, super nice, super empathetic,” Mo says. “He took the time to talk to my family and we felt like his top priority. It was an incredible day.”

five men at basketball game

UC President Neville G. Pinto, Tayyab Diwan, MD, Julian Litvak, Mohamed Emlemdi and Steve Woodle, MD, director of solid organ transplantation at UC Health.

Mo also felt supported by his scholarship and the donors providing for his education. As a Robert A. and Sandra W. Heimann Legacy Scholar, one thing he didn’t have to worry about was earning money while he was immunocompromised. 

“Trying to succeed while worrying about tuition and managing my medical condition would have been nearly impossible,” he says. “My scholarship support means so much to me.”

His experience and the relationships he established with his doctors have influenced him to consider a career in medicine and help others. Dr. Woodle, also a transplant recipient, had a keen understanding of Mo’s new reality.  

“He is really special in a lot of ways,” says Dr. Woodle. “He’s gifted and a very hard worker. It has been an honor for me to be his physician, and if you have a son, you want him to be like Mo. To me, the ultimate measure of success is that you live your life like the transplant never happened to you and he’s done that.”

“Dr. Woodle really helped by challenging me to live my life as I would despite my kidney disease,” Mo says. “Seeing that he’s had success in life after having a transplant made me think, ‘Why not get more out of life than I originally planned?’ It has been hard and is still a work in progress but using that mindset is how I’m turning this into a positive.”

two men

Mo and Julian celebrate their third transplant anniversary.

Taking honors business classes with pre-med classes, all while recovering from surgery was no small accomplishment.

“These are exceptionally rigorous programs, and he did them at the same time, all while going through a transplant and dealing with this major life event,” says Judy Magazine, Mo’s academic advisor and assistant director of Lindner Business Honors. 

Just as Mo was getting ready to go back to campus, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While he jokes that he was accustomed to masks and virtual schooling, he admits he missed out on much of the typical college experience.

“I have such respect for both Mo and Julian,” says Magazine. “Mo has tremendous gratitude and wants to pay it forward and Julian gave him the gift of life.”

With Dr. Woodle’s guidance, Mo applied and was accepted to several medical schools and is in the process of deciding.

“With his demeanor, he is going to be so good with patients,” Dr. Woodle says.

Mo and Julian remain close and collaborate on the YouTube channel, One Mo Kidney, where they have captured their journey and work to raise awareness. The videos are infused with gratitude and sweet moments.

“I’m really blessed and thankful,” says Mo in a December 2021 clip. “When I think about all the individual coincidences and almost miracles that have had to happen for me to be here, it is humbling. That’s why my life isn’t just for me, I have the duty and opportunity to give back to others.”

Featured image at top: Mohamed Emlemdi. Photo/UC Alumni Association. 

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