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Julianne Vasichek’s Liver Transplant Journey: Aspirus St. Luke's Aides in Life-Saving Organ Donation Efforts

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Julianne Vasichek keeps her eye on the goalPublished 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,” explains Vasichek.

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” Vasichek notes.

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.”