• By Jason Howland

Liver transplant gives hockey player a new power play in life

May 9, 2019

She was an elite athlete who faced many opponents on the ice as a women's hockey player. But Julianne Vasichek's (VAH-sih-check) biggest battle occurred in 2015 in the fight for her life. And thanks to a lifesaving organ donation, she is alive today to share the message that one person can make a difference.

Reporter Jason Howland has her story.

Watch: Liver transplant gives hockey player a new power play in life

Journalists: Broadcast-quality video (3:10) is in the downloads at the end of this post. Please "Courtesy: Mayo Clinic News Network." Read the script.

Lacing up your skates. It's a mundane moment that means so much.

Returning to Mayo Clinic for her four-year follow-up after a lifesaving transplant in 2015, Vasichek is trying out the indoor hockey facility at Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center.

"I have a big smile on my face because it's been — and I'll try not to get emotional — but it's been a long road," says Vasichek.

She is a former Division One All-American, a two-time national champion with the University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey team and a member of the U.S. Women's National Team. Throughout her hockey career, Vasichek has taken a fair share of hits on the boards. But none of them compare to the blow she received in 2008 when she was diagnosed with a rare liver disease: ...

"... primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC," says Vasichek.

"PSC is disease of the bile ducts," says Dr. John Poterucha, a Mayo Clinic transplant hepatologist. "Think about it as a deciduous tree, where the liver is the leaves on the tree, and the bile ducts are the branches and the trunk of the tree. What PSC does is it causes inflammation of the bile ducts. Over a period of time, those bile ducts, because of the chronic inflammation, they get a lot of scarring. And, so, they narrow down. So the bile ducts start to become partially or even completely blocked."

For years, Vasichek suffered from symptoms of PSC, such as abdominal pain, fatigue and itching. In February 2015, at age 32, her condition rapidly declined. Her liver was failing.

"I don't know how much longer I had, honestly, based on everything," says Vasichek.

"She became much more ill much more quickly than most patients," says Dr. Poterucha. "And it turned out that she actually developed a second problem with her liver, ... where the blood from her liver was unable to drain."

Within days of being admitted to the hospital and on death's doorstep, a liver donor became available. And doctors at Mayo Clinic performed a lifesaving transplant.

"I'm standing here talking to you because of a person that, you know, chose to make that selfless decision," says Vasichek. "And it's one of the most selfless decisions you can make."

"She was so ill that somebody who was older or was less physically fit probably would have succumbed to this illness; [whereas] she was able to at least stay well enough to get a liver transplant," says Dr. Poterucha.

"So this is 61 staples," says Vasichek. Four years after her liver transplant, she still can provide details on each one of her many surgical scars. "So what we're seeing is the original transplant scar here. So it's ... beautiful."

It's been a long road of recovery, and she's feeling happy and healthy.

"Be positive. Laugh at yourself," Vasicheck says. "You know, just do what you can to get by — whatever that is."

And appreciate life's moments.

"Every day ... is certainly a gift," she says.

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