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'Really grateful and really blessed': Metro East basketball coach celebrates kidney transplant this Christmas

A case of COVID took out Deryl Cunningham's kidneys last fall. He'd soon find a match, and his Christmas present, through his cousin.

ST. LOUIS — You can usually find Coach Deryl Cunningham pacing the hardwood at the Highland High School basketball gym, but he's spending a few weeks far from the sidelines at home while he recovers from surgery.

"With APOL1, I basically got one gene from my mom and one gene from my dad that doesn't agree with my body," Cunningham said. 

Already weakened by a genetic condition, a case of COVID last fall took out Cunningham's kidneys. He knew he would need a donor.

His sister offered her own kidney, but it was a cousin in Chicago who made the match. 

Dec. 1, Cunningham, his cousin, sister and wife all checked into SLU Hospital in St. Louis for the procedure, which was over before he even realized it. His family said he was arguing with staff to get the procedure underway, unaware he was already stitched up.

"I was already thinking in the hospital, 'this can't go this smooth,'" he said, adding it's been a remarkably easy recovery except for one bad day.

Though doctors are keeping a close eye on his progress because of the pandemic.

"They are not worried about me. They’re worried about others around me," he said. "It sounds like if we weren't in a pandemic and the variant omicron... If those things weren't searching, it sounds like I would be back right away, but those things are affecting my situation."

Cunningham said even after he gets the all-clear from his doctors at SLU Hospital, he'll keep coming back. He wants to raise awareness about APOL1 and help with research.

Now, Cunningham keeps his Bulldogs top of mind while preparing for his own return to the court. Administrators have already told him they'll keep the stands behind him empty of any crowds for his safety.

"When we get everybody healthy, I'm like 'watch out,'" he said with a laugh. "When we get the whole team healthy and get going, I'm looking to make a push."

This Christmas, Cunningham said he knows what matters most: his health and his family.

"My Christmas present was from my cousin. My blessing from God was I got a kidney. I don't need anything for Christmas. My family is everything," he said. "I’m really grateful and really blessed."