Whether on the basketball court or at the dinner table, the family of Duane and Kathy Mlachnik has always been all about teamwork, fortitude and faith.
Over the years, Erica, Anthony, Angela, Marla, Aubrey and DJ watched their dad, whose name will be recognizable to anyone who follows local high school basketball, lead by example on the court, helping his players grow both as athletes and as people.
“My parents always pushed us to make our own correct decisions. They were never ones to tell us what to do, but pushed us in the right direction,” said youngest son DJ Mlachnik.
Duane Mlachnik memorably served as a basketball coach at Pius XI and St. Thomas More High Schools (to name just a few of his coaching stints) before taking a job as the head basketball coach at St. John’s Northwestern Academy in 2016.
His children were standouts on the court as well, all going on to play at the collegiate level. DJ Mlachnik even followed in his father’s footsteps, joining him at St. John’s as assistant basketball coach; meanwhile, Erica, Anthony and Erica’s husband Scott are co-founders of Wisconsin RAP Basketball, a club whose mission is to develop responsible, well-rounded young adults who can succeed on and off the court.
The bedrock of their strong family foundation has always been their Catholic faith, something that felt natural and “organic” in their upbringing, said oldest daughter Erica Cook.
“It was never pushed on us — it was just something we did,” she said. “So when things went wrong, that was where we turned straight away.”
“Things went wrong” beginning in September 2020, when family patriarch Duane Mlachnik came down with a persistent knee pain that just wouldn’t let up. Then the breathing issues started — and several trips to the emergency room later, things hadn’t improved. On Oct. 4, he was admitted to a local hospital for what was originally diagnosed as COVID pneumonia and put on oxygen.
Just before they wheeled her husband out of the emergency room to be admitted to the hospital, Mlachnik’s wife Kathy — his high school sweetheart — grabbed his hand.
“You don’t have time to even think,” she said. “So as they were saying, ‘We have to take him; you have to stay here,’ I took his hand and said, ‘Well, let’s at least say an Our Father really quickly.’”
Over the next few days, Mlachnik’s respiratory status declined so much that he was moved to the ICU and put on a ventilator, barred from receiving visitors due to COVID protocols. Things were happening fast, and answers were in short supply. But the family turned to their faith and rallied around their mom, gathering regularly at her house for prayer sessions and family meetings, as each of the Mlachnik children — whose careers span the worlds of finance, medicine, education and coaching — networked with people who could help them find answers.
Eventually, bronchial culture results revealed Mlachnik was actually suffering from a rare fungal pneumonia called blastomycosis.
This was a positive development because it meant the medical team could now move ahead with the correct treatment — but Mlachnik’s condition was still far from stable, and doctors told the family to prepare for the worst. They made the decision to have Mlachnik taken by Flight for Life to Aurora St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee, where he stayed in a medically induced coma for three weeks. He wasn’t released from the ICU to the rehab floor at St. Luke’s until Nov. 19, and did not come home from the hospital until Dec. 23.
During his time in the ICU, Mlachnik went from 190 to 127 pounds. The damage sustained by his lungs is irreversible and puts him at increased risk for respiratory illnesses. He undergoes pulmonary rehab every day and has had to step down as head coach at St. John’s, a role now filled by his son.
“There is no prognosis if I will continue to improve, stay the same or hopefully not to digress at all,” said Mlachnik. “So for now, it’s rehab, living in the moment while living each day as its own, (and) having full trust in God and the journey he is taking me on.”
That journey, Mlachnik said, has been fueled by faith — not just for him, but for his family members and their larger community.
“Sometimes one of us would have a bad day and be like, why is this happening? But we would always go back to, ‘everything is according to God’s plan, not to our plan,’” said Cook.
Mlachnik trusts that it was, and continues to be, for a greater purpose.
“Nurses at the hospital, doctors — if it wasn’t every one of them, it was a lot of them saying basically what happened (to me) was a miracle. And it was absolutely faith-driven,” he said. “It has made so many friends and family members that had kind of gotten away from God, from church, reconnect with their faith.”
Even the littlest Mlachnik family members have been affected — Cook’s son Jordie recently took his rosary to show-and-tell day at his public school, explaining that “this is the rosary I used to pray for my Grandpa Duey.”
Last year on Thanksgiving, with Mlachnik newly released from the ICU, the family gathered at the Marian Shrine in Milwaukee to say a rosary and give thanks for his improving condition before heading over to the St. Luke’s parking garage to wave signs at his window.
Almost a year later, just a few days before Thanksgiving 2021, the entire family reconvened at the Marian Shrine — this time, with Duane in tow.
“I think we all feel like there’s a reason for this,” said Kathy Mlachnik. “I know that God wasn’t ready for Duane to go yet. We have a purpose. We both pray every night for that clarity of what is the reason. I’m trying to be patient with it, because Duane still isn’t healthy yet. But we both know there is something for us to do. He didn’t die because we needed to finish something.”