Wake Forest Coach Donates Kidney To Player

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When Tom Walter recruits players, he often describes the family atmosphere at Wake Forest. On Monday, he backed up those words by donating one of his kidneys to a player in need—freshman outfielder Kevin Jordan.

Jordan first developed flu-like symptoms last January. By April, after losing 30 pounds, he was diagnosed with a condition affecting his kidney. At that point, his kidney was functioning at 15 to 20 percent of its ability.

Jordan played sparingly for his high school team and was not at 100 percent during his senior season. He was still drafted in the 19th round by the Yankees. Over the summer, he began kidney dialysis three times per week, but still wanted to honor his commitment to Wake Forest and try to live a normal life.

Kevin Jordan (left) and Tom Walter
Jordan moved from his hometown of Columbus, Ga., to Winston-Salem, N.C., for his freshman year in August. But two days before classes began, another doctor's visit revealed his kidney function was down to 8 percent and a transplant was recommended as soon as possible.

When medical testing of Jordan's family did not yield a good match, Walter stepped up to the plate to undergo the compatibility-testing process. The entire process took five weeks and the anxiety of not knowing what would happen was more stressful than deciding to start the process in the first place, Walter said.

Walter said that as soon as he had the support of his family, Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman and his team, donating a kidney to Jordan was a "no-brainer decision."

"I would do anything to help any one of my players or any of my family members—anything in my power to help them have a better quality of life is something that I want to do," Walter said. "Maybe it's something as little as helping mentor them in their academic pursuits, or helping them choose a major, or something of a greater magnitude like this. My number one priorities in life are my family and my team and I'll do anything to help any one of those people."

Walter was cleared as a match on Jan. 28 and told his team of his decision on Jan. 31. His compassion and sacrifice came as no surprise, senior outfielder Steven Brooks said.

"The Tom Walter I know has been a very stand-up man at all times," Brooks said. "When he made a commitment to Kevin, he did it for good and bad. It may be eye opening for other people, but not for me because that's just the kind of guy he is."

On Feb. 7, Walter and Jordan had the surgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The entire process took about five and a half hours, but everything went as planned.

"Both surgeries went very well," said the lead surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Newell. "We are pleased with how each patient is progressing. We expect each will recover fully."

The condition Jordan developed is called antineutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody (ANCA) vasculitis. According to the North Carolina Kidney Center, normal antibodies are parts in the blood that are produced by the immune system to fight germs. Autoantibodies are abnormal antibodies that attack one's own cells and tissues. ANCAs are autoantibodies that attack the inside of a certain type of white blood cells called neutrophils. When ANCAs attack these neutrophils, they cause the white blood cells to attack the walls of small vessels in different tissues and organs of the body. Vaculitis in the kidneys causes leaking of blood and protein into the urine and kidney failure.

"Up to the first of last year, Kevin has never even really been sick," said Keith Jordan, Kevin's father. "I'm talking even to the point of having a cold. Kevin is one of those unique individuals that always wanted to eat good food and was always healthy. So this was just a huge shock for us."

Despite being on dialysis for 18-20 hours a day, Jordan passed all his classes in the fall semester, but went home to Georgia before spring semester and will remain there during the recovery process.

"I have as much respect for Kevin as anybody I've ever coached just because of what he's gone through," Walter said. "Until we're back to seeing each other on a daily basis, I don't think anybody can anticipate how the dynamic of our relationship is going to change, but certainly Kevin and I are going to be forever joined at the hip, so to speak. But even before I got tested, I just had an unbelievable amount of respect for Kevin just for everything he endured this semester. He passed all his classes and got up every day and went to class. There's not a lot of people that would have done that. To me, just the simple fact that he showed up every day took an unbelievable amount of fortitude on his part."

Throughout it all, Jordan has remained positive.

"I think he's probably grown up a little bit, but I don't think it's necessarily changed his attitude and the way he looks at things," Keith Jordan said. "He's still trying to do everything that he was doing before any of this happened. He's the type of kid that is always looking forward and he wants to play baseball, he wants to go back to school and he wants to live a normal life. I don't think that any of that has really changed."

When healthy, Jordan has an ideal combination of power and speed. He's a 6.6-second runner in the 60-yard dash and has above-average bat speed with his lefthanded swing. At the 2009 East Coast Professional Showcase, he launched a 400-foot blast off the tin roof of the batting cages in right field at Joker Marchant Stadium—the same building Jason Heyward hit with his ballyhooed home run during Spring Training.

Kevin will take spring semester off while he rehabilitates. His father said he can begin light workouts in about two months and hopes to be back at Wake Forest this summer.

"For Coach Walter to do it, you just don't know what it means for our family and for Kevin," Keith Jordan said. "I have a 92-year-old father and he was just amazed and thankful. It's something that you just can't imagine. It's like divine intervention when you look at everything that happened and how we even got to Wake Forest and then to meet a coach like Coach Walter and look at some of the things he had been through and done—and then to now do this, you just can't express it in words."

Walter will spend the next few days in the hospital in Atlanta, but plans to be with his team when they open the season at Louisiana State on Feb. 18.

In addition to the support of his family, assistant coaches and team, Walter has been able to reach out to another coach for first-hand guidance.

Dennis Womack was the head coach at Virginia from 1981-2003. In November, he donated a kidney to his sister-in-law.

"He was a great resource for me because I was able to ask him coaching-specific questions," Walter said. "He obviously having just been through it, he's a couple months ahead in the timeline, but he knows the rigors of the job and what I do on a daily basis. So it put my mind at ease talking to him."

"For the most part," Womack said, "what I told him was, 'Don't expect to go out and throw BP and hit fungoes too quickly; that's probably not going to happen.' But in terms of actually being able to lead your team and be out on the field, I think he'll be able to do that pretty quickly."

Though he'll probably have to take it easy for about two months, Walter said he'll be itching to get back to the five things he loves most: playing with his kids, running, playing golf, coaching third base and hitting ground balls to his team.

Hopefully, he'll be hitting balls to Jordan someday.

"I think everybody's first goal is that Kevin can just have a normal life," Walter said. "I mean, forget the baseball part of it for now. If he gets back on the field, that's going to be the best story of all."