Cassie Masters was 18 years old when she learned she had a very rare liver condition – a blood clot to be exact.
A few years later, she met her now-fiancé Taylor Hagen, a diehard Iowa State fan, who told her she had to become an Iowa State fan too. It’s a good thing, too. Cassie, who is now 31, didn’t know it at the time, but Taylor’s allegiance to the Cyclones would eventually help save her life.
“The blood clot was in the hepatic vein, which is the main vein of the liver that processes blood flow through your liver,” Cassie said. “I was sent up to Mayo Clinic because my family doctor didn’t know what was wrong with me—they just knew something was wrong with my liver. So then at Mayo, they diagnosed me with what’s called Budd-Chiari Syndrome and I also have the JAK-2 mutation which affects how your blood is made. I made a lot of red blood cells and a lot of white blood cells, so my counts are really high, which is what caused the clots.”
Cassie had been living with the condition for several months before her diagnosis.
“I was very uncomfortable when I slept—I had to sleep sitting up. I looked probably around seven or eight months pregnant and that was just from all the fluid retention because my liver wasn’t processing and I was retaining all of that fluid from everything I took in.”
Doctors successfully placed a stent in Cassie’s liver but cautioned her that a transplant would eventually be necessary. For the next several years, Cassie’s liver functioned well with regular cleanings of the stent.
It was during this stretch of Cassie’s life that she and Taylor began dating. Cassie grew up in Clear Lake and Taylor grew up just a few miles north in Hanlontown. But it wasn’t until a random run-in at a local shop that they met for the first time.
“I was going into a shop called Louie’s Custom Meats and I was going in to get burgers and brats for my friends on Memorial Day. (Taylor) would not let anyone else help me behind the counter. Then he creeped on me on Facebook and started talking to me. But it worked out well because we’re engaged now.”
They originally planned to get married in September of 2019. But when Cassie’s doctors began warning her that they didn’t know how much longer her stent could be maintained, they decided to postpone the wedding. Then, in July of 2019, Cassie got the news she’d been dreading.
“I just remember the day I went and saw my doctor, Dr. Talwalkar, and he told me I needed the transplant. He told me I needed to start looking for a living donor. I was frustrated because I didn’t want to necessarily tell people that I needed a transplant but I needed support and needed people to know because I had to raise money for my donor and for me, for the time we had to be off work and the bills.”
That’s when Taylor decided to put his Iowa State fandom into action.
“Taylor had thought about it and he is a big fan of Cyclone Fanatic and the Stanz & Fitz podcast. He listens to them all the time and is always waiting for a new episode to come on. He’s always commenting on Twitter about them too. So he sent a message to Jared (Stansbury) to see if Jared would help spread the word. Jared did just that, which worked awesome. He talked about it a couple of times on the podcast. It was nice because that’s where it all started—where it became okay for me to talk about this and when I started to realize that people would support me and wouldn’t judge me for needing help.”
Cassie and Taylor began raising money for a potential future donor and the Cyclone Nation was there to help.
“From there, we just started reaching out to Jared again and Iowa State coaches. We were trying to get signed basketballs and footballs for the benefit so that we could have a silent auction. Matt Campbell didn’t hesitate. Bill Fennelly and I had met once working at a brewery so I reached out to him and he signed a basketball and sent it to me. We also got Fred Hoiberg to do sign a ball for us. It was awesome—just the support from Iowa State was amazing. I didn’t think I was really going to get anything from the auction and those items (from Iowa State) ended up being some of the biggest items for it.”
When all was said and done, more than $27,000 was raised for Cassie and her future donor. But until a match was found, all Cassie could do was sit and wait.
“We had the benefit and we just kept waiting. I couldn’t ask the nurses or my doctor how many people were testing and I couldn’t know who was testing because it’s their privacy. They couldn’t tell me anything so it was really frustrating to sit there and wait and wait and wait.”
Then, in November of 2019, Cassie got a call from her best friend whose uncle had just been involved in a motorcycle accident and was being flown to Mayo Clinic. When Cassie found out he likely wouldn’t survive, she had to make a decision.
“I had to ask one of the most difficult questions of my life: whether they’d be willing to donate his liver to me. I called her to ask and it was very hard and it was very surreal.”
The family agreed and Cassie got a call from her doctor shortly thereafter telling her she needed to be at Mayo for a transplant within two hours. But there was a catch. After Cassie arrived, doctors explained that the transplant would only be viable if certain conditions were met within a 30-minute timeframe. Unfortunately, these conditions failed and the liver was too damaged for the transplant to go forward.
“It was a smack in the face because everything was working outright for it and I thought I was going to get a full liver. But I just took it as a sign that I needed to be there for my best friend and her family.”
That meant more waiting for Cassie—at least until Santa Claus showed up on her front porch on Christmas Eve a month later.
“On Christmas Eve my parents came over and Taylor was there. We were playing cards and hanging out and all of the sudden Santa Claus knocks on the front window of the house. I just sat there and said, ‘Who in the heck is this creepy guy at my house?’ Taylor looked at me and said, ‘Go! Go answer the door!’ So I went to go open the door and he just let himself in my house at that point. I was just so confused.
“He asked me for a hug and I thought, ‘I don’t really know who you are and don’t really want to give you a hug but I guess.’ They were taking a video of me and you can tell in the video that you can tell I was very hesitant about getting close to Santa Claus. So I gave him a hug and he said, ‘You get your Christmas miracle. You get your Christmas miracle this year because you’ve been a good girl.’ I was like, ‘What is this guy talking about?’
“And then one of Taylor’s friends who he has been friends with for eight years or maybe more walks through the door. She told me she was approved to be my donor and I was shocked. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. It was so great. It was literally the best Christmas present anyone in my family could ever have.”
Cassie’s transplant was performed on February 20, 2020, and as Cassie described it, “It went really, really well.”
“What happens is they take up to 70 percent of the donor’s liver. They took her in for surgery first and then they took that lobe and brought it to me. The lobe that I received will regenerate but not to full size from what I understand. Hers will actually regenerate to full size in a year. It’s amazing. The surgeons had told us that by two weeks after the transplant it grows back to 40 percent. Your liver regenerates really fast.”
Both Cassie and her donor are now recovering well, though Cassie had to overcome some complications that kept her at Mayo for a month after the surgery. She was officially discharged from the hospital on March 27, 2020.
“I feel awesome now, actually. I was in a lot of pain before but now I’m just working on building muscle back and gaining energy. I can carry groceries in the house, but it feels like I ran a marathon and I’m out of breath like I’ve never worked out in my life. That’s one of the biggest things.”
Though she has some follow-up appointments through July, Cassie thinks the worst of her health troubles are behind her. She’s confident enough that she and Taylor picked a new wedding date: June 12, 2021.
In the meantime, Cassie is looking forward to Iowa State football games in the fall and basketball games with Taylor’s family this winter.
“Taylor has been teaching me about football since last year so I understand it and I enjoy going to games with him and his family. They are diehard. His sister-in-law played rugby for Iowa State. The whole family is—even my 4-year-old nephew is a huge Iowa State fan. He’s huge into basketball now and went to his first Iowa State game last year. At some points, it was more fun to watch him than it was the game because he was so into it.”
But Cassie no longer just associates herself with Cyclone fans—she considers herself one too.
“When I started dating Taylor he asked me, ‘You don’t like Iowa, do you?’ I told him I just didn’t watch a lot of sports. So he said, ‘Okay. You like Iowa State now.’ There’s no way after everything that has been done for me that I won’t be a fan of the Cyclones forever. Literally they are people who helped save me and live a better life.”
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If you have a story to tell about your Iowa State fandom or how being an Iowa State fan changed your life, reach out to me (@StephCopley on Twitter or CopleySteph@gmail.com) and let’s tell it.