Published in The Woman Today magazine, October/November 2016
Julianne Vasichek’s Liver Transplant Journey: St. Luke’s Aides
in Life-Saving Organ Donation Efforts
Through sports, Julianne “Montana” Vasichek, University of
Minnesota Duluth (UMD) women’s hockey strength and conditioning
coach and equipment manager, learned about overcoming challenges by remaining
positive. She ended up using this skill through the life-altering journey
through illness and receiving a life-saving liver transplant.
At the young age of 19, Vasichek was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis,
a disease of the digestive track that left her fatigued during her first
year as a college hockey player. “Once I was diagnosed, I began
taking medication for the ulcerative colitis and felt good again,”
Five years later, in January of 2008, Vasichek began experiencing new symptoms
and much worse than before. Vasichek, coaching at Bowdoin College in Maine
at the time, dealt with stomach pain, nausea and itching for four months
before going to see a doctor. “I thought I was having an allergic
reaction. The doctor informed me I was actually experiencing common symptoms
of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a disease causing inflammation
and scarring of the bile ducts in the liver,” explains Vasichek.
“Living in small-town Maine, finding a specialist who knew much about
my rare disease was hard. For all anyone knew, I could need a liver transplant
in as little as 2 or as many as 15 years.” Vasichek took to the
internet where she discovered the non-profit PSC Partners Seeking a Cure.
“I felt helpless until I connected with the PSC community who reminded
me, through their positivity, that I could make a difference by choosing
a positive method of perception,” says Vasichek.
Vasichek moved back to Duluth and began going to St. Luke’s for her
check-ups and tests associated with PSC. “My gastroenterologist
at St. Luke’s, Dr. Aga Bednarz, realized immediately what my doctor
in Maine missed—the disease had progressed and I needed a stint,”
says Vasichek. “It was great finally finding a physician who knew
about the disease.”
In 2012, Vasichek started volunteering with LifeSource, a federally designated
organ procurement organization. “Educating people about organ donation
felt like a way I could make a difference for my friends waiting for a
transplant,” she says. On Friday, February 20, 2015, during a UMD
women’s hockey game, she coordinated with LifeSource to raise awareness
about PSC and organ donation. “I had a fever in the week leading
up to this game, but I had to be there. It was so important to me. For
a person with a rare disease, it’s uplifting to have so many people
aide in raising awareness. It makes you feel like you have a family behind
you,” says Vasichek.
Early Monday, Vasichek checked into St. Luke’s Hospital. “I
thought I would only spend a few days there,” said Vasichek. “Then,
I lost consciousness. All the medical staff at St. Luke’s moved
quickly to help me. One nurse picked up on my breathing patterns and realized
something was wrong.” Vasichek was ventilated and put into a coma.
“Without St. Luke’s doctors and staff, I would have only stayed
alive for a couple of days,” explains Vasichek.
Vasichek was transported to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where doctors discovered
Vasichek not only had PSC, but also Budd-Chiari Syndrome, a disease that
reduces blood flow to the liver. Because of this one-in-a-million combination,
she needed a liver transplant immediately. “The open line of communication
between St. Luke’s and Mayo Clinic was amazing. Since St. Luke’s
is not a transplantation hospital, I knew their goal was to help me get
to Mayo Clinic where I received a life-saving liver transplant”
Although St. Luke’s does not perform organ transplantations, they
are a leading hospital in supporting organ, tissue and eye donation efforts.
LifeSource has awarded St. Luke’s the Workplace for Life Platinum
Award for their efforts in promoting enrollment in state donor registries.
“The life-saving process of organ donation is a gift not only to
the recipients, but to the families of the organ donors,” says Katelyn
Wilson, a LifeSource hospital liaison. “Organ donation can help
give meaning to what is often tragic and unexpected loss.” Vasichek
continues to remain grateful for the gift of life she was given. “Having
the opportunity to become a donor is not something to take lightly. It
makes you a hero to give the gift of life,” she says.
Although her recovery has been a roller-coaster including several ongoing
colon surgeries, Vasichek remains as positive as always. “I am in
a place of renewed life and unexpected challenges. I hope for no more
surgeries,” she says. “I also plan to continue teaching people
about PSC. The phrase ‘one person can make a difference’ applies
to donors, but it also applies to people dealing with rare diseases and
transplant patients. If I choose not to say anything, nothing bad will
happen. But, by talking about PSC I can help someone.”
BELOW: Julianne Vasichek keeps her eye on the goal