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Teacher battling disease finds strength in community

Juniata Gap Elementary School teacher Zach Noel is hoping to find a kidney transplant but credits those around him — friends, family and community — for giving him encouragement and keeping him in high spirits as he battles against his disease. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Zach Noel’s battle with kidney disease has been made a little bit easier with the support of his family, friends and community.

The Juniata Gap Elementary teacher hopes to receive a life-changing kidney transplant in the near future and credits those around him for giving him courage and optimism as he deals with the realization that his kidneys are failing.

As for when he expects a transplant, “My doctors are still waiting,” Noel said. “Right now, they’re trying to see how long my kidneys are actually going to last.”

As his glomerular filtration rate levels decrease, though, Noel knows it’s only a matter of time. Currently his filtration rate is at 18. When that number starts to slide to 15 and below, kidney dialysis or a transplant will be his options.

The fifth grade teacher began his fight with kidney disease in June 2020. Initially, he wasn’t alarmed, but as his condition worsened, his life changed dramatically.

Noel took a turn for the worse this spring when his disease landed him in the hospital twice — once because of severe swelling and another time due to medication-induced dehydration. He lost 25 pounds in two weeks and didn’t have an appetite.

“I was just constantly exhausted and couldn’t do anything,” Noel said. “It’s been a crazy journey.”

Hospitalization due to chronic illness is nothing new to Noel. A Type 1 diabetic, he’s been admitted multiple times due to the disease. Still, with his kidneys’ current status, he is in uncharted territory.

“I’ve been in and out of the hospital before and learning new things like changing diets, but this is a new one.”

Noel said his disease requires him to take up to 13 pills a day. When his condition first worsened last year, he was taking as many as 16.

Now, Noel is looking forward, prepared for the next chapter in his recovery as the time for a transplant nears.

“I’m not nervous about getting it done,” he said of the procedure. He smiled and said with a chuckle, “I hope it works.”

Noel’s wife, Kimmy, however, is anxious, but she’s also hopeful.

“I’m nervous because we don’t want anything bad to happen, but I’m also excited to figure out a resolution and get on with our lives,” she said.

Kimmy said she appreciates her husband’s optimism amid adversity and how committed he remains to the people who love him.

“He just doesn’t like to focus on the bad,” Kimmy said. “He just wants a resolution and is really dedicated to being a dad and a teacher.”

Elaine Luensmann, a fellow fifth grade teacher at Juniata Gap Elementary, has followed Noel’s journey closely. She said she’s amazed by how he carries on despite his setback.

“He comes in every day,” Luensmann said. “No matter how he feels, the kids are first and foremost his priority. When he comes in, you can tell he’s a little lethargic, but when the kids come in he puts on a brave face. He works hard and he wants to be there every day whether he should be or not.”

The process has been long and arduous, at times discouraging, but Noel is grateful for the people who have stood by his side throughout it.

“The main reason I’ve gotten through it is the support I have,” Noel said. “My family, my wife, my friends, my colleagues constantly ask what they can do to help — they’re all basically being mother and father gooses to me, making sure I’m not overdoing it and trying to help out wherever they can. I honestly couldn’t ask for a better support system.”

Noel’s support system extends well beyond the confines of his personal life, as the community has banded together to alleviate the burden of medical expenses. From noon to 8 p.m. on July 31, a cornhole tournament will be held at Legion Park in Hollidaysburg to raise funds for Noel and his family as they navigate the next steps in his recovery. Sponsors include Lakemont Park, Domino’s Pizza, Stuckey Automotive and Frederick Lock and Key, among others.

“You don’t realize how many people have got your back until something like this happens,” Noel said. “It’s so hard to put into words just how utterly grateful I am.”

Noel said he has plenty of reasons why he wants to see through the completion of his recovery journey. In tandem with the town’s support, he said, is the added incentive of being there for the people who need him most.

“I’m ready to go to work every day and have energy and be my normal self around the kids,” Noel said. “If I get this done, I can get back to where I’m going to be there for them.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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