Pair of local Catholics race toward tumor cure

| Christina Capecchi | September 8, 2015 | 0 Comments
Matt Zechmann leans on his Catholic faith after being diagnosed with a desmoid tumor in 2009. Courtesy Matt Zechmann

Matt Zechmann leans on his Catholic faith after being diagnosed with a desmoid tumor in 2009. Courtesy Matt Zechmann

When two young Catholics found themselves battling the same rare and deadly tumor, they received overwhelming support from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — and each other. Now they’re preparing for a Sept. 19 fundraiser and trying to keep the faith.

Matt Zechmann, 31, a logistics transportation manager for Schneider, was diagnosed with a desmoid tumor in 2009. Maggie Folkestad, a 21-year-old college senior, learned in 2014 that she has three desmoid tumors. The life-threatening tumor has no cure, and it is so rare — approximately two out of every million Americans are diagnosed with it each year — that it doesn’t receive any government funding to research its cure.

That leaves Zechmann and Folkestad to marshal all their resources to fight the grim disease. They have discovered a deep reserve, thanks largely to their combined 17 years of Catholic schooling. Zechmann attended St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi, St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Folkestad, meanwhile, went to Our Lady of Grace in Edina and the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield and is now at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.

Along the way, they have been surprised by many Catholic connections, a burst of light in their darkest moments and evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. When Zechmann suffered from complications following a 13-hour operation at the Mayo Clinic to remove a football-sized desmoid tumor, hemorrhaging 750 milliliters of blood, Dr. David Aamodt, his former STA tennis partner, was one of the doctors who saved his life.

Early on the morning of a crucial, “last ditch” surgery, Father John Ubel — who had been Zechmann’s chaplain at St. Thomas Academy — made a surprise visit to Mayo. The Cathedral of St. Paul rector had risen at 3 that morning and felt compelled to pray a rosary for Zechmann and drive down to Rochester.

Desmoid DashTo sign up for the Sept. 19 Desmoid Dash at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, or to donate, visit DesmoidDash.com.

Now, friends and family are rallying around the Desmoid Dash 5k to be held at St. Thomas Academy on Sept. 19. Every dollar of the proceeds will go directly to the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation and, specifically, a promising “Collaboration for a Cure” study being done at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

“Catholic schools are a real gift because, as we often hear, they do not forget their own,” Father Ubel said. “It is a tribute to the sense of community.”

It’s also an opportunity to take action in the face of fear. “I could be funding the cure to my own disease,” Folkestad said. “That’s part of my drive and why I want other people to participate.”

She and Zechmann met at last year’s Desmoid Dash and have since been a source of “mutual strength,” he said. The night of Folkestad’s latest CT scan, they commiserated over Facebook messenger.

“It’s so nice to have that person who knows what you’re going through,” Folkestad said.

Both young Catholics say they’re trying to make sense of their fate through a spiritual lens. Sometimes, they admit, the number of people praying for them feels both comforting and bewildering.

“Because you don’t have control, you kind of have to lean on your faith and pray that things will be OK,” Folkestad said.

For Zechmann, who joined a Bible study last year, faith has always been part of his journey but hasn’t resolved all his questions yet. “There’s still more to be written,” he said.

Father Ubel relates to that struggle. “Even after serving as a priest for 26 years, there are still times when in my gut I pray, ‘Lord, it is not fair that this person has to suffer so much at such a young age,’” he told The Catholic Spirit. “The mystery of suffering still beggars my best attempts to make sense of it, and I must turn it over to God, asking for his love and grace to understand.”

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