Leeds man’s joy of college graduation after kidney disease ruined his college years


John Dunwell, of Kirkstall, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of 11 and required kidney dialysis.

This left him drained of energy and he couldn’t play sports with friends and missed most of his schooling.

John underwent a kidney transplant at the age of 14 at Leeds Children’s Hospital.

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John Dunwell Photo: Steve Riding

The transplant transformed John’s life, but his education had already suffered irreparable damage and he left school with a handful of shoddy GCSEs.

John, a lifelong Bradford City AFC fan, worked in the club shop for a few years and tried another college course before deciding he wanted to study for a sports qualification.

Today John, 24, graduated from the Open University with a Second Class Honors Diploma in Physical Education and Sports Training after studying for three years at the University Center in Leeds.

John, who hopes to become a sports teacher at the college, will keep the family of the kidney donor updated on his progress in his annual letter sent to them via Leeds Children’s Hospital.

John Dunwell with mom Catherine Coombes Photo Steve riding

He wrote the first letter at the age of 14 from his hospital bed after the transplant to thank them for accepting the kidney donation from their loved one after his death.

“I give them updates on what I’ve been doing over the past year,” John said. “Just to let them know that someone is doing something with their life right now, they have the chance to do it.

“I remember the first one. I was just pointing out how happy I was to be able to eat chocolate. It was the only thing I liked as a kid.

“I still feel sad for them, but it’s good that they got to think about others and make such a big decision.”

John’s little brother, Tristan, now nine, was just 10 days old when John had the transplant.

John’s athletic knowledge has proven to be a success on the field as well as in the classroom.

He is the coach of the women’s under-13 football team, Horsforth St Margaret’s Wildcats, which recently won the Harrogate and District U13 Division Two title.

John’s 13-year-old sister Faye plays for the Wildcats.

John was diagnosed with rare kidney disease. Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in 2009, when he was 11 years old.

John Dunwell is a coach of the women’s under-13 soccer team, Horsforth St Margaret’s Wildcats, which recently won the Harrogate and District U13 division title. John is pictured with his 13-year-old sister, Faye, who plays for the Wildcats.

Later that year, he began to undergo kidney dialysis at LGI for up to four hours three or four times a week.

After three months, he switched to home dialysis for 11 hours each night.

In October 2011, he was placed on the list of transplants.

Five weeks later, her family received a call from Leeds Children’s Hospital to tell them that a kidney was available.

John underwent an eight hour transplant operation on November 30, 2011 at Leeds Children’s Hospital

John’s little brother, Tristan, now nine, was just 10 days old when John had the transplant.

John Dunwell on the BBC Children in Need Rickshaw Challenge. …… Team Rickshaw’s John with Matt Baker in November 2014. Photo: BBC

John had to be isolated for three months and could not leave the house because he was at risk of becoming infected.

But her life was transformed after she left solitary confinement.

“I felt normal again and tasted the freedom in everyday life,” he said.

“There were no restrictions and I could go out with friends and eat and drink whatever I wanted.

“I saw friends, I spent sleepovers, I played soccer, I took bike rides, I did the usual things people take for granted.

“I used to be on a restricted diet with no potassium – so no crisps, chocolate, crisps. Basically, anything and everything.

“It was awful. I felt so tired all the time. I would go on dialysis and it would be exhausting.

“When I got home I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t really have a life.”

John missed most of his schooling because he was ill or on dialysis and his GCSE scores were poor.

Previously, he wanted to be a chef and studied food technology for two years at Leeds City College’s Printworks campus.

He then studied for a sports qualification at the college’s Park Lane campus, but left after a year to work in the Bradford City AFC club shop.

At the age of 20, John returned to Park Lane College and spent 12 months studying for a level three physical education diploma as part of an elementary school sports diploma.

He then began a three-year open university degree in physical education and athletic training at Leeds University Center.

He graduated with a second-class honors degree and now wants to become a high school physical education teacher.

“I never really had the chance to plan for my future because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” John said.

“I love sports and have done internships in primary schools. I love working with young people.”

After his transplant, John participated several times in the British Transplant Games.

In November 2014, he was one of six young people from across the country selected to ride from Salford to London in a rickshaw challenge that raised £ 2.7million for BBC Children in Need.

John’s mother, Catherine Coombes, 45, said: “It just goes to show that if you work hard enough you can get anything in life you want.

“We are so grateful that he obtained the kidney because it was from a deceased adult donor.

“We are very grateful to the family for signing the organ donor registry.

“I am extremely proud of John. It has now been 10 years since the transplant took place.

“He’s been able to do so many things and experience so many different things – more than we could have wished for.”

To join the NHS Organ Donor Registry, visit the website at www.organdonation.nhs.uk or call the hotline on 0300 123 23 23.

John Dunwell pictured at the age of 15 in September 2012 with his mother Catherine Coombes. John had participated in the Transplant Games held in London. Photo: James Hardisty

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