University degree joy for Leeds man after kidney disease ruined his school years

A Leeds man who  left school with virtually no qualifications after his education was wrecked because of a rare kidney disease has defied the odds to earn a university degree.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 4:45 am
Updated Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 10:22 am

John Dunwell, of Kirkstall, was diagnosed with the disease aged 11 and had to go on kidney dialysis.

It left him drained of energy and he was unable to play sports with friends and missed out on the majority of his schooling.

John underwent a kidney transplant aged 14 at Leeds Children's Hospital.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

John Dunwell

Photo: Steve Riding
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 low grade 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.

Now John , 24 has graduated with a second class Open University honours degree in physical education and sports coaching after studying for three years at The University Centre in Leeds.

John, who hopes to become a junior school sports teacher, will be keeping the family of the person who donated the kidney updated with his progress in his annual letter to them, which is sent via Leeds Children's Hospital.

John Dunwell with mum Catherine Coombes Photo Steve riding

He wrote the first letter aged 14 from his hospital bed after the transplant to thank them for agreeing for their loved one's kidney to be donated after his death.

"I give them updates on what I have done in the last year," said John. "Just so they know that somebody is making something of their life now they have got the chance to do it.

"I remember the first one. I was just highlighting how happy I was that I could eat chocolate. That was the one thing I loved as a kid.

"I always feel sad for them, but it is good that they were able to think about other people and make such a big decision."

John's baby brother Tristan, now aged nine, was just 10 days old when John had the transplant.

John's sporting knowledge has proved a success on the pitch as well as the classroom.

He is a coach for Under 13s girls football team Horsforth St Margaret's Wildcats, who 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.

John Dunwell is a coach for Under 13s girls football team Horsforth St Margaret's Wildcats, who recently won the Harrogate and District U13 division two title. John is pictured with his 13-year-old sister Faye, who plays for the Wildcats.

Later that year he started having kidney dialysis at LGI for up to four hours three or four times a week.

After three months he moved on to having home dialysis for 11 hours every night.

In October 2011 he was placed on the transplant list.

Five weeks later his family got the call from Leeds Children's Hospital to say a kidney had become available.

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

John's baby brother Tristan, now aged 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 home because he was at risk from infections.

But his life was transformed after leaving isolation.

"I just felt normal again and got a taste of 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, had sleepovers, played football, went on bike rides, just did the usual things that people take for granted.

"I was on a restricted diet before with no potassium - so no chips, chocolate, crisps. Basically anything and everything.

"It was awful. I just felt so tired all the time. I would go on dialysis and that would be draining.

"When I came home I just wanted to sleep. I didn't really have a life."

John missed the majority of his schooling because he was either ill or undergoing dialysis and his GCSE results were poor.

He previously wanted to be a chef and studied food technology for two years at Leeds City College's Printworks campus.

He moved on to study for a sports qualification at the college's Park Lane campus, but left after a year to work in the club shop at Bradford City AFC.

When he was 20, John returned to Park Lane College and spent 12 months studying for a level three physical education in primary school sport diploma.

He then started a three year Open University degree in physical education and sports coaching at The University Centre in Leeds.

He graduated with a second class honours degree and now wants to be a junior school PE teacher.

"I never really had the chance to plan my future because I didn't know what would happen," said John.

" I just love sports and I have done placements in primary schools. I enjoy working with young people."

After his transplant John competed in successive 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 which raised £2.7m for BBC Children in Need.

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

"We are just so grateful that he got the kidney, because it was from a deceased adult donor.

"We are so grateful the family signed on the organ donor register.

"I'm massively proud of John. It is coming up to 10 years now since the transplant.

"He has been able to do so much and experience so many different things - it is more than we could ever have wished for."

To join the NHS Organ Donor Register visit the website at or call the hotline on 0300 123 23 23.

John Dunwell pictured aged 15 in September 2012 with mum Catherine Coombes. John had competed in the Transplant Games held in London. Photo: James Hardisty