English teacher donates kidney for 2015 grad

Story by Miracle Okoro, Staff Writer

English teacher Brian Zurhellen donated a kidney to East Meck graduate Christian Dunbar.
Photo by courtesy of Sonjia Dunbar
English teacher Brian Zurhellen donated a kidney to East Meck graduate Christian Dunbar.

As Brian Zurhellen lay on the operating table, a sense of calm washed over him. It was Nov. 1, and while others celebrated Veterans Day, he was getting knocked out with an anesthetic. In a few hours he would earn the title of kidney donor.

Zurhellen, a ninth grade English teacher, initially wanted to donate his kidney to former East Meck student Christian Dunbar, who graduated in June. Zurhellen was last year’s assistant baseball coach and had heard news of Dunbar’s condition through the head coach.

Dunbar had been diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in the seventh grade, a disease which disabled the filters in his kidneys from working properly. Because of this condition, Dunbar was on dialysis for several years.

“I had already considered being an organ donor,” Zurhellen said “I didn’t really know him, I wasn’t too close to him, but when I heard about his situation I knew he was the one I was going to donate to.”

Unfortunately Zurhellen’s kidney wasn’t a match for Dunbar, but Zurhellen didn’t stop there. With the help of the kidney donor exchange program, he was still able to put his kidney to good use.

“My kidney went to a recipient here in Charlotte,” Zurhellen said “That recipient had his wife donate to someone in Michigan, the person in Michigan had someone donate a kidney for [Dunbar].”

Zurhellen said he decided to donate because he had good kidneys and good health, so he saw no reason not to help out someone in need. What Zurhellen didn’t know, however, was that his humanitarian actions would bring him national recognition.

A newscast featuring Zurhellen on WCNC aired on Nov. 27. He was also featured in a People magazine article and was presented with the I am CMS award on Dec. 10 by Superintendent Ann Clark.

“I hope you all know how lucky you are to have a teacher like this; his generosity is truly unique,” Clark said in an article that was posted on the CMS website.

Reuben Moore, a fellow English teacher, also admires Zurhellen’s for his actions

“When you donate a kidney, you’re basically telling a person that you’re willing to shorten your life, in order to let someone else live longer,” Moore said.

Joel Edde, the head of the English department, noted Zurhellen’s humility

“Mr. Zurhellen has been very humble about this because it is not about him,” Edde said.

“He has always been that way, he does what is best for his students, not because he is a good teacher or wants to be noticed, but because it is what he believes is the right thing to do.  I am not sure anyone really knew what he was doing until after the article in People came out. I think he did an unbelievably courageous, brave, and selfless thing for another human being.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all that brave, courageous, and selfless.”

Zurhellen said he would never consider himself a hero, even though others might

“No, I don’t think I’m a hero by any stretch,” he said. “We all help people when and where we can, and I was glad to help Christian get healthy and start to live a semi-normal life of a teenager.  I think, however, that being dealt bad kidneys that require exhausting and cumbersome dialysis several times a week, yet still finding the energy and motivation to be a great student and person makes Christian heroic.”

Both Zurhellen and Dunbar have long recovered and are in very good health.

“I’m feeling great,” Dunbar said. “I haven’t felt this good in a long time.”