BILLINGS — Chase Soennichsen just wrapped up his first year as the Melstone volleyball coach, leading the Broncs to the school’s first district title.
It wasn’t long ago, however, that a return to the sideline seemed unlikely.
“I thought I had COVID. I got home, it was the end of the year so I thought that I could finally relax, but I had a weird pounding in my ear," Soennichsen said.
Late in the summer of 2021, Soennichsen wasn’t feeling well and eventually had his blood tested. The ultimate result? Myelodysplastic syndrome, where his blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells. For context, a normal blood/oxygen level is 14, and Soennichsen was at five.
“Physically, I couldn't even walk from one end of the volleyball bench to the other without keeling over," Soennichsen said. "Emotionally — my whole life I've been taking care of kids. I've coached for 15, 16 years now. It's so weird when you get in that situation. How are you going to respond? I shut down."
Add in the fact that Soennichsen also has the rare genetic disorder Fanconi Anemia, an inherited disease characterized by multiple physical abnormalities, bone marrow failure and a higher-than-normal risk of cancer, though the physical abnormalities are not present. This made treatment increasingly difficult to come by, though a trip to Seattle turned the tide.
“This (physician's assistant) that was on my team was like, 'Chase. This happened in 1985. It worked one time. What do you say?' I didn't care. At this point I was totally mentally checked out. I signed my life away and they ran the two drugs together. We don't know. We don't know how it worked," Soennichsen said.
Soennichsen had a bone marrow transplant in Seattle and, due to complications, a three-month stay turned into nine.
As the transfusions continued, Soennichsen’s health began to improve, as did his motivation for life. While he’s still receiving those transfusions via giant needle once a month, he’s back doing what he loves.
Soennichsen said he received support from throughout Montana during his darkest days, and that helped him come out the other side.
“I definitely pick my battles now. I have calmed down a little coaching," Soennichsen said. "I've grown up a little bit. I don't know, but I appreciate everything so much more. There used to be so many things in life you take for granted, now I'm like, 'Nope.'"