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Seven years after liver transplant, Saints' hockey coach takes on Grandma's Marathon

Since her diagnosis with a rare liver disease, St. Scholastica women's hockey coach and former Minnesota Duluth All-American Julianne "Montana" Vasichek has become an advocate for those with the disease and organ donation.

Julianne "Montana" Vasichek training for Grandma's Marathon in Great Falls, Montana.
St. Scholastica women's hockey coach Julianne "Montana" Vasichek soaks her feet in Giant Springs following a 19-mile training run near her hometown of Great Falls, Montana. Vasichek plans to attempt Grandma's Marathon Saturday seven years after a liver transplant.
Photo courtesy of Julianne Vasichek
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DULUTH — A little more than seven years ago, St. Scholastica women’s hockey coach Julianne “Montana” Vasichek woke up in a hospital bed in Rochester.

Vasichek — a three-time national champion with the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team — had undergone an emergency liver transplant. The former All-American for the Bulldogs and a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team needed help even to do simple things.

“The first time I got up to walk, I walk about 10 feet and I had to sit down, the first time I sat up to do exercises on the side of the bed, I needed three people to help me,” she said. “It’s not like I had to relearn fully how to walk — not like somebody who’s had the paralysis of a limb, but I had to gain that endurance back. I could barely walk on my own and you’re just sore because you’ve been cut open across your abdomen.”

This weekend, Vasichek will attempt one of the ultimate endurance tests — running 26.2 miles in Grandma’s Marathon Saturday.

Vasichek, 39, competed with the USWNT but didn’t make the 2006 Olympic roster. She was coaching at UMD when she took a job at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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Soon after taking the job, Vasichek said she started feeling fatigued and “itchy” without any inflammation or reason.

These were the first symptoms she noticed of the rare liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) that damages the bile ducts inside and outside the liver, according to the PSC Partners website. The disease affects a little more than 30,000 people in the U.S. The damage eventually results in blockages that require a stint.

Vasichek said she moved back to Minnesota to take advantage of the doctors at the Mayo Clinic and for several years the disease was treated by using “stints” to clear the blockages. The procedures left Vasichek feeling better for “a year or two” but eventually she would need to go in for a similar procedure.

As treatment continued, however, she developed infections and more visits to the hospital. On Feb. 23, 2015, she checked into the hospital for what she thought was a serious but still routine infection.

“The next thing I remember is waking up on March 5 and finding out I had a liver transplant,” she said.

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Vasichek said as a result of Budd-Chiari Syndrome, an even rarer disease that results in clotting in the veins in the liver, she had begun to talk about getting on the list for a liver transplant, but her condition when she checked in sent her straight to the top of the priority list and brought her family in from their home in Great Falls, Montana.

“My friends said they weren’t sure if they were going to need to plan a funeral,” Vasichek said.

She was in the hospital for a month after the initial surgery, but even then the ordeal wasn’t over. Complications from the surgery would lead to four more surgeries over the next two years and cost her most of her colon.

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“I was up and down in a Mayo ambulance a few times,” Vasichek said.

Vasichek ran Grandma’s Marathon twice before, once in 2007 before her diagnosis and again in 2009 just after. She ran cross-country in high school — she was part of three state championship teams from C.M. Russell High School — and her coach Branch Brady instilled a love of the sport in her.

Julianne "Montana" Vasichek training for Grandma's Marathon in Great Falls, Montana.
St. Scholastica women's hockey coach Julianne Vasichek takes a selfie in front of a statue of her high school cross-country coach Branch Brady during a training run in her hometown of Great Falls, Montana.
Photo courtesy of Julianne Vasichek

“He was just an incredible coach and knew how to instill that competitiveness, but also make it fun,” Vasichek said. “Part of the reason I love cross-country so much is that the people are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. They’re down to earth, you really bond of being able to push yourself mentally and physically and they just have a lot of fun.”

The races in 2007 and 2009 were both “hot as heck,” according to Vasichek and she’s hoping for a little more “seasonal day” Saturday when she hits the starting line in Two Harbors.

‘A role model’

Vasichek certainly won’t be alone on the course Saturday. Thousands are running and among them is Dr. Doug Simonetto, a member of Vasichek’s treatment team at Mayo.

They met around the time of Vasichek’s transplant and have seen each other at the regular appointments to check on the new organ.

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“It was not initially a smooth recovery for her, but she has come a long way,” Simonetto said. “She’s now doing amazing things — to the point that she is attempting to run a marathon, which is quite impressive. I think she is a role model for all people who are in the journey of a transplant and can help them realize that they can live normal, healthy lives.”
Not only is Vasichek attempting a marathon this weekend, she will also compete in the Transplant Games of America July 29 to Aug. 3 in San Diego. The games are put on to “increase awareness of the importance of organ, cornea, bone marrow, and tissue donation through the lives of the athlete-recipients and the lasting legacy of their donors,” according to the organization’s website.

Not only is Vasichek a role model for transplant recipients, she’s also become an advocate for PSC Partners and organ donation. PSC Partners helped Vasichek through the “scary time” just after she was diagnosed and it helped her keep a positive outlook.

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“Sometimes you don’t have much of a choice with how serious it’s going to be,” she said. “You can’t necessarily control the treatment, but no matter what you’re going through every day, you can choose your attitude with it. That’s not to say if you’re feeling down one day, that’s a bad thing — it might just be how it is — but you can ride that out and you can make little decisions each day about how you’re going to face the day.”

Organ donation talk by Julianne "Montana" Vasichek
Since being the recipient of a liver transplant, St. Scholastica women's hockey coach Julianne "Montana" Vasichek speaks at area schools as an advocate for organ donation.
Photo courtesy of Julianne Vasichek

Vasichek also speaks at schools from Two Harbors to Cloquet about the importance of organ donation.

“She has been volunteering, giving lectures and sharing her journey to inspire people to people to become donors, either live donors or sign up for organ donation, which is important,” Simonetto said. “We do have a shortage of organs and we need more people to be willing to be donors to save the lives of people like Julianne.”

Vasichek remains acutely aware of the life-saving choice made by someone seven years ago and the “ripple effect” it’s had.

“I didn’t even know I needed that organ, it just kind of happened,” Vasichek said. “If that person or that family hadn’t made that decision, there’s no doubt I wouldn’t have woken up to continue doing everything I’ve done seven years after. So many little things, from getting to meet my nephew and niece that have been born to being the head coach of St. Scholastica to running a marathon — those are all the little moments that are bonuses.”

This story was edited at 9:44 p.m. on June 16 to remove an erroneous reference to a kidney transplant and to correct the name of PSC Partners and at 2:25 a.m. on June 17 to clarify the timeline of her condition before the transplant. It was originally posted at 9:03 p.m. The News Tribune regrets the errors.

More from Jamey Malcomb
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Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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