Stepping up to the Plate, Coach Gives Kidney

In high school and college, coaches give their players plenty of tools to help guide them through life – mentorship, support and the drive to be the very best at everything they do. But a college baseball coach in North Carolina literally gave one of his players the gift of life.

Wake Forest University baseball coach Tom Walter and freshman player Kevin Jordan are both recovering from surgery at Emory University Medical Center in Atlanta. That’s because Coach Walter donated one of his kidneys to save Jordan’s life.

Jordan was diagnosed with ANCA vasculitis, an autoimmune disease that would have most likely put the rising baseball star into kidney failure even before he got out of college. Normally, our immune systems defend our bodies, telling white blood cells to attack foreign invaders. But in Jordan’s case, his immune system was telling white blood cells to attack his body.

During his last high school baseball season, while he was being recruited by Wake Forest, Jordan started feeling fatigued. Not long after, a biopsy turned up positive for the rare disease and his body started to deteriorate. Jordan still decided to go to college and play baseball, despite going through grueling dialysis treatments.

“It was probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do,” Jordan said. “I had to learn limits, being on dialysis – that will wear you out. You try as hard as you can but your body won’t let you.”

His surgeon, Dr. Allan Kirk, said the disease hit Jordan quickly and unexpectedly. It was a good thing Coach Walter volunteered when he did.

“I didn’t want Kevin to wait one more day,” Walter said.

A press conference with the two at the hospital drew reporters, photographers and family members – an event that could be a bit overwhelming for a young man who just got out of surgery.

“Just be yourself,” Walter whispered to Jordan shortly before the cameras started rolling.

That quiet act of moral support – similar to the life saving kidney donation – was just one of many touching moments between the coach and his player.

“It’s a remarkable thing triggered by one person’s generosity,” said Dr. Tom Newell, who performed the surgery on the coach.

Right now tens of thousands of people are waiting on donor lists for healthy kidneys. Many patients have to wait several frustrating years since finding a donor means exact matches on blood types and locating surgeons who can do the complicated surgery. Coach Walter believes it was divine intervention that brought the unlikely matches together on the baseball field – a bond that will now be with them both for life.

“I certainly don’t consider myself a hero in any shape or form. I was just doing the right thing,’’ Walter said. “This has always been about Kevin having a normal life.”

Today doctors say Jordan can start exercising again in as soon as eight weeks. It’s very possible that he could play his starting position in the outfield at Wake Forest in less than two years. By then, Dr. Kirk says his athletic abilities, including sliding into home plate, should be back to where it was before the diagnosis.

As for Coach Walter, he plans to be back in North Carolina Friday. He won’t be going toe to toe with umpires over bad calls anytime soon, but he is just glad to be on the field to support his team this season.