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Natasha Knobel didn't let her illness define her

Published Jan. 21, 2012

DUNEDIN — Few people knew about the times that Natasha Knobel cheated death. Not even some of her closest friends.

They knew her as a soccer player, loud and stubborn, whose energy seemed unending.

She was the diligent student who completed an internship through AmeriCorps with the Clearwater police in pursuit of a law enforcement career.

And she was the budding actress who performed with the cast of Howl-O-Scream each year and made countless friends, the girl who seemed to always have a can of Coke in hand, the music lover who carried an iPod with more than 6,000 songs.

Miss Knobel didn't talk much about the many medications she took to keep her body functioning or the catheter needles that left scars on her body.

She wanted to be known as the pretty girl or even the mean girl, she told her parents. Anything other than "the sick girl."

"She had tons of friends and people who wanted to be around her," said Roger Picard, 29, her close friend and roommate. "So many people didn't know what she was going through."

Miss Knobel had polycystic kidney disease — or PKD — a genetic disorder that forces many sufferers to undergo dialysis to survive. Though the disease was a constant burden, she was determined not to let her ailments define her.

Picard, a certified hemodialysis technician, remembers the day in late October 2009 when the pretty woman with red hair walked into the dialysis clinic. Sitting under the bright clinic lights amid the whirring and beeping of dialysis machines, Miss Knobel stood out — she was one of the few young people there, and even with needles puncturing her skin, she was all smiles.

They connected on Facebook. Picard learned all about her dreams and ambitions.

She wanted to be a cop, but things changed when she turned 25 and she was no longer covered by her parents' insurance. It led her to pursue a career as a dental assistant — a secure job where she could more easily obtain the coverage she needed.

Miss Knobel and Picard began dating and, after a while, moved into a Palm Harbor apartment together.

He came to know well the story of what illness had forced her to overcome.

Doctors had first detected PKD in Miss Knobel when she was an infant. The disease is marked by the appearance of fluid-filled cysts that form on the kidneys, slowly overtaking the organs that help regulate the expulsion of waste from the body.

By the time Miss Knobel was 14, her kidneys were failing.

She had two options: undergo dialysis or have a kidney transplant. Her mother, Tonja Knobel, made the latter option possible, donating a kidney.

What followed was a lifestyle unlike what Miss Knobel had known before. She was no longer lethargic, no longer in pain. Three months after the transplant she was back on the Largo High School soccer team, while also running track and cross country. At six months, she competed in a "Transplant Olympics."

But the feeling was temporary.

In 2002, during her first year of college at Florida State University, the symptoms returned. Her energy plummeted and she began to have seizures — signs that her body was rejecting the transplanted kidney.

Doctors put her on dialysis, a procedure she had to endure sometimes as much as five times a week while she awaited another transplant.

She waited nine years, undergoing dialysis nearly 1,500 times. But she never stopped living.

"She did what she wanted and didn't let it hinder her," Picard said. "The girl is a fighter. It's not like she just gave up."

Dialysis sessions became study sessions. She sought adventure when she could — accompanying a group of friends on a trip to North Carolina, where she was the only one who didn't go overboard on a river rafting journey. With her family, she vacationed to Holland, where her father, Hans Knobel, was born. This summer, she went parasailing.

Her relationship with Picard ended, but they remained friends and roommates. In the last six months, stacks of boxes of medical supplies filled their apartment and they moved a dialysis machine into a corner. Picard administered home-based treatments while Miss Knobel studied or watched TV or played cards with him and other friends.

The year 2012 was going to be hers. It would be the year she completed her degree at the Ultimate Medical Academy, the year she became a dental assistant.

Maybe, she told her mother, it would be the year she got a new kidney.

On Jan. 7, Miss Knobel died in her sleep. She was 27.

More than 300 people attended funeral services for her less than a week later. Many knew her only in passing. Some were classmates, some were coworkers from her internship, some were fellow Howl-O-Scream cast members.

All, her family said, were a testament to a girl who cared about people and accepted them as they accepted her.

"I think her life and what she meant to people speaks for itself," said Hans Knobel.

"People from far away and people from long ago told us: 'She made me a better person.' "

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

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