North Carolina Coach Who Wasn't a Kidney Donor Match for Former Student Finds Another Way to Help
I don t know how to put into worlds how appreciative I am, Christian Dunbar tells PEOPLE
Eighteen-year-old Christian Dunbar was stunned when Brian Zurhelen, the assistant coach of his old high school baseball team, rounded the corner of his Charlotte, North Carolina, hospital room for a big reveal this past Tuesday. It was then the college freshman learned his former coach was the reason he was about to get a new kidney.
Dunbar was in the seventh grade when he was first diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a chronic kidney disorder that has left him on dialysis for the last two years.
Dr. Susan Massengill has been treating Dunbar since 2005 and says, “Kidney failure is a progressive disease. He really needed a kidney. He’s bright and focused and really wants a future and the new kidney will give him that.”
Dunbar has received dialysis treatments four hours a day, three times a week since 2013. The severity of his condition meant he could no longer play his favorite sport, so instead, he was named the statistician of East Mecklenburg High School’s baseball team. He knew “Coach Z,” but not well.
“I kept thinking in my mind, ‘Who would do this for me?’ and coach didn’t come to mind because we’re not really close. I just met him this year from helping out with the team,” Dunbar tells PEOPLE. “He’s a really good person. All the players and coaches like him and I’m just extremely grateful.”
Zurhelen, 33, says it was an easy decision.
“I’ve read about it for a number of years and it seemed like a good opportunity since I knew someone that needed one. I have two and only need one, so it seemed like a no-brainer,” he tells PEOPLE.
But Zurhelen didn’t actually give Dunbar his kidney. After testing, he learned he wasn’t a match. But the determined coach wasn’t going to give up that easily. Instead, the UNOS Kidney Paired Donation worked to help three pairs of donors and recipients in two states get transplants.
The coach explains how the three-way match went down, “Mine went across the hall to someone here in Charlotte and that recipient had someone donate one that went to Michigan. The Michigan recipient had someone donate one that came here to Dunbar. It’s pretty cool how they find the matches.”
The teen’s mom, Sonjia Dunbar, broke down when talking about how grateful she is for Zurhelen’s selfless act.
“Mothers just want to make it all go away and to have someone step forward and make it so that Christians transplant is possible – I think it’s wonderful. Thank you is not enough. There’s not a word that’s enough,” she tells PEOPLE.
Dunbar, who is pre-med, agrees.
“I don’t know how to put into worlds how appreciative I am,” he says.
Just before their surgeries at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital, the coach wrote “Have a ball with your new kidney” on a baseball and gave it to Christian. The two plan to play catch as soon as they’re both up to it, which should be soon since they’re both already up and walking around the hospital.
“This gives him an opportunity to catapult him to do all the things he was meant to do,” says Dr. Masengill.
As for Dunbar, his hopes of playing baseball have been replaced with a new dream.
“I want to be a doctor,” he says. “I think I want to do surgery.”