Saturday will be a day of achievement for Sentinel High School senior Janae Mitchell, who will graduate as valedictorian and No. 1 in her class academically.
It will also a solemn day, because her dad won’t be there to see it.
Mitchell’s father, Dustin, was diagnosed with sclerosing cholangitis before she was born, and spent extended periods at St. Patrick Hospital because his liver’s bile ducts were blocked and couldn’t drain.
“I learned to walk in the hospital. When I was young, I was there almost every day,” 18-year-old Mitchell said.
At times, her father’s hospitalizations lasted months. Eventually, when an improved liver stent was developed, the stay required for Dustin Mitchell's stent replacements decreased to a week at a time.
Janae Mitchell still has a photo of her sitting between her dad’s legs on a hospital bed, his face yellow with jaundice.
Near the end of October in 2006, her dad was placed on the Mayo Clinic's waiting list for a liver transplant. But after he arrived, doctors said he was too healthy to qualify.
Then the hospital found that he had liver cancer as well, and began the process to put him back on the transplant list. Dustin declined, and instead decided to return to Missoula and his family.
Mitchell said when her dad came home, he was in a wheelchair, couldn’t talk, and his skin and eyes were yellow from liver failure.
“He was gone for my 10th birthday. He promised me he would come back and we would do something special, but we never got that chance,” Mitchell said.
Dustin died days after coming home.
“I just remember sitting at the foot of his bed and watching his breathing decrease,” Mitchell said. “It didn’t hit me until later that night that I’m not going to see my dad again.”
She had just started the fourth grade, and said the loss put even more pressure on the family, especially her mom Becky.
“She essentially had to raise five kids on her own,” Mitchell said.
It took her a few years to start coming to terms with the fact that her father was gone.
“It didn't help when other kids at school would say things like, 'I hate my dad' or 'He's so mean sometimes,' and I'm thinking that I just wish I still had mine,” she said.
Between his hospitals stays, Mitchell said her dad always seemed very tired, but was also happy, and still had the time and energy to mow the lawn and play with his kids. He also was away at work as a truck driver for most of the week.
Graduating from college is one of the things her dad wanted most for his children, Mitchell said. It was a way from them to not end up living paycheck to paycheck working, as he used to put it, as “a dumb truck driver.”
At Sentinel, Mitchell is the class secretary and treasurer for student government, and manager of the track team. She is also an active member of the school’s Key Club and Sentinel’s chapter of National Honor Society. During her senior year, she also ran cross-country.
She said she hasn’t been hit with the same level of “senioritis” as many of her classmates.
“I’m a 4.0 student and I can’t just let go of that,” Mitchell said.
She said she’ll miss the teachers at Sentinel after she graduates, in particular, Debbie Thompson, who teaches Spanish, one of her favorite classes, and chemistry teacher Brett Taylor.
She never enjoyed science until taking Taylor's classes, but is now planning on attending Montana State University in the fall to study chemical engineering.
“I felt that they really cared about me. If they thought I was having a bad day they would ask me about it,” she said.
Her mother and four siblings will be there on Saturday to see Mitchell graduate. Her oldest brother is coming home on leave from his Air Force assignment in Hawaii, and her older twin brother and sister are already back from college in North Dakota.