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How Do You Thank Someone For Saving Your Life?

This month, our “Member Profile” column features a heartwarming story about two CAP members and their remarkable friendship. Dr. Colleen Coleman has been a CAP member since 2006, and Dr. Brian Dunn has been a CAP member since 2004. The following article is reprinted with permission and originally appeared in the February 27, 2017 edition of The Orange County Register.

How do you thank someone for saving your life?

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Brian Dunn, 45, an anesthesiologist who got a new kidney on Jan. 30, sat down and wrote an email, the most important email of his life.

It needed to convey how his donor had given him the gift of time: Time to be a good dad to his 7-year old daughter, time to be a good husband, time to be a good doctor with a new sense of compassion for patients who are just as vulnerable as he had been.

Colleen Coleman, 51, a surgeon who donated her kidney to Dunn, got emotional when she received Dunn’s email. They had been friendly for more than a decade, working across the operating table from each other, but never friends. Now, they are forever connected by her kidney.

“That letter was very touching to me,” she said.

Then the other letters arrived – a letter from Dunn’s wife, a letter from his mother.

When she got back to work at Hoag Hospital Newport Beach, the hallway was lined with streamers. There were flowers, a cake, and so many people calling her a hero.

“I did not understand how impactful it would be to help someone in this way,” Coleman said. “There is a benefit to giving. But hero is a very embarrassing word.”

She almost wasn’t a hero at all.

Movie music

Drs. Dunn and Coleman, who went to Irvine High, met in 2003. He remembers the first time. He brought music into the operating room. If she got to pick, she would love to hear heavy metal – “Metallica,” she said. But Dunn brought in theme songs from movies.

He played music from “Superman,” “Batman” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He would ask her to name the film.

“She knew her movies,” Dunn said. “That was our connection.”

What she didn’t know was how sick he had been, and how his illness had changed his life.

History of trouble

When he was 16, Dunn got a stomach ache after a track meet. He grew up in Menlo Park, in Northern California, where, as a teenager, he had been a budding track star. Dunn went to the doctor, who discovered a large tumor in his stomach, and an enlarged testicle.

Brian Dunn felt doomed. “The doctor told me I had less than a 1 percent chance to live,” Dunn said. “He told us to consider hospice care.”

“My father cried for the first time I had ever seen him cry,” Dunn said.

But his parents did research and found him a miracle. They took him to Indianapolis, where he had a new kind of chemotherapy, which had a different mix of drugs than he had been using in Menlo Park.

The chemo saved him, but it cost him dearly. It ruined his kidneys.

Dunn was the valedictorian of his graduating class. He went to Stanford, then medical school at UC Irvine. He decided to become an anesthesiologist, knowing his immune system had been compromised. He would try to stay away from unknown, communicable diseases.

When was 25, he took a physical and found that his kidney was failing.

His mother, Judith, stepped up and donated her kidney without hesitation.

“When your mother does that, you better come home for Christmas,” Dunn said.

Donated kidneys, Dunn said, can last a couple of decades.

20 years later

In October of 2015, Dunn could feel his health slipping away. He had become an anesthesiologist at Hoag, bouncing from hospitals in Newport Beach and Irvine.

“I started dragging,” he said. “Holy crap, I felt bad.”

He and his wife, Dianne, had adopted a daughter (conceiving a child was another cost of chemotherapy), and he was having a tough time keeping up with then 6-year-old Caroline.

In April of 2016, he started dialysis, which he called “my prison.” He had to have his system washed out four times per day. It zapped his time and his strength.

He needed another transplant. At first, his chances looked promising. A woman in Ladera Ranch, where he lived with his family, had been tested and was a match for Dunn.

But she backed out of the surgery.

“I thought, it’s not going to happen,” Dunn said.

Around that same time, Colleen Coleman had heard that Dunn needed a donor. She had worked, as a young medical student, on the “harvest team” at UCLA. For three years, she had worked with recipients of organ donations.

One day in the operating room, Coleman looked across at Dunn, who was looking sick. She asked him, “What blood type are you?”

He was A-negative.

“Me too,” she said.

Second thoughts

Coleman went home that night and asked her husband, Dr. William Wallace, an obstetrician-gynecologist, what he would think if she donated a kidney.

“I wouldn’t give up one of my kidneys,” he said.

“I’m giving up one of mine,” she said.

Here’s the problem, Coleman wasn’t a match for Dunn. At least that’s what the testing company told her.

She admitted she was relieved. Though she has been a surgeon, the thought of going under the knife scared her.

So Dunn kept hoping. He found another match, a patient suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). His doctor advised him not to take that kidney.

Then, last June, the testing company called back and said it had made a mistake. They re-tested Coleman and found she was a match.

Dunn said his first reaction was to feel guilty because he would be putting Coleman through such pain.

She could have stopped the process there. She considered backing out.

“You should have second thoughts,” Coleman said. “What if I died in the process?”

But she thought about her grandmother, who died of kidney failure. Coleman’s mother had been 6 when her mother died. Brian Dunn’s daughter then was 6.

“I didn’t want his daughter to grow up without a dad,” Coleman said.

Coleman organized a dinner so her husband and two children could meet Dunn, his wife and his daughter. Her husband changed his attitude after meeting Dunn.

“You better follow through,” he said.

Transplant day

Dunn gave Coleman a set of Tiffany earrings, each in the shape of a kidney.

Coincidentally, Coleman gave Dunn a Tiffany money clip in the shape of a kidney.

When the transplant was over, Coleman went to see him.

“I wanted to make sure my kidney could pee,” she said.

As it turned out, everything went as planned. Three weeks after the surgery, Dunn said he is feeling as vibrant as he is grateful.

So what did he write in that letter? Here is just a part:

“I am so excited about what a new kidney will mean to my life. First and foremost, it will greatly prolong my life. I’ve been told that every year on dialysis takes three years off your life. The transplant list in California is about 15 years long – 15 years of dialysis wouldn’t leave me much life even if I eventually got one through that route. The most distressing part of this process was thinking of my 7-year-old daughter, Caroline, growing up without a father. She’s a tough kid, but she’s also a ‘daddy’s girl.’ I need to be there for her. And this kidney will help that be possible ...

“It’s hard for me to rely on other people. I usually try to get through problems on my own - I guess I have some trust issues. I’m also a bit of a ‘people-pleaser.’ I want to be seen as self-sufficient and not a burden to anyone ... You got re-tested after they said you weren’t a match the first time. You got all kinds of medical testing done to prove you could give a kidney. After a 9-month process, the procedure is going to happen. And it is largely due to your hard work and perseverance ...

“Monday, January 30th is a day I’ll remember forever. It’s the day that someone did something truly selfless for me. Colleen, you are an answer to prayer and an amazing example to everyone around you.

“Thank you for your sacrifice.”