Five years ago, this teen received an organ donation with the help of his coach. Now, he’s dedicating his career to saving others' lives.

News, Child Health | 3 months ago

A New Life, Thanks to a Surprise Kidney Donation

Five years ago, this teen received an organ donation with the help of his coach. Now, he’s dedicating his career to saving others' lives.

It doesn’t take a medical degree to save a life. But it does take a big heart.

Christian Dunbar spent much of high school fighting kidney disease, which meant dialysis three times a week. Not only did he miss a lot of school, he couldn’t play baseball, his favorite sport. But as a true team player, Christian joined the East Mecklenburg High School baseball team as a statistician.

“Christian was a remarkable young man who never lost sight of his goal to take control of his future on his own terms and not the terms of his chronic kidney disease,” says Dr. Susan Massengill, his pediatric nephrologist and director of pediatric nephrology at Atrium Health Levine Children’s.  “He waited so patiently for that special donor to answer his prayers for a future free of the restrictions of end-stage kidney disease.”

After a two-year wait for a donor, Christian had his kidney transplant in November 2015, thanks to a living donor. The day before his surgery, the hospital introduced him to the surprise donor who made his transplant possible: Brian Zurhellen, one of his baseball coaches.

“When I saw him come around the corner and saw a familiar face of someone who would do this for me, it was really special for me,” Christian says.

Brian’s kidney wasn’t a perfect match for Christian, but he became the first link in a life-saving chain of paired donation. It works like this: Brian donated a kidney to a patient in Charlotte, that person had someone donate a kidney to a patient in Michigan, and that person had someone donate a kidney to Christian.

Now, that life-saving chain will continue in a new way. Five years after his transplant, Christian is now a UNC-Wilmington graduate who’s studying for the MCAT so he can go to medical school. He wants to dedicate his career to saving the lives of others.

“I always wanted to [go to med school], but when you’re on dialysis and have to miss a bunch of school, you start to wonder, ‘How am I ever going to get this done?’ I’m just really thankful that I had somebody like Brian to come and do this for me,” he says.

According to Donate Life America, more than 1,900 children under the age of 18 are on the national transplant waiting list. Almost a third of pediatric kidney transplants at Levine Children’s come from living donors. For the past three years, patient survival rates at the hospital have been 100%. Currently, 14 children await a donor for a kidney transplant at Levine Children’s, and 8 more are being evaluated for a possible transplant. To those kids, Christian offers encouragement: “Hang in there, and do what you have to do to weather the storm. Because it does get better,” he says. “At times it feels like it's never going to get better, but eventually it does.”

Learn about the process to become a living donor on our Kidney and Kidney-Pancreas Transplant page. You can also register to become an organ donor through Donate Life America.