UMN grad raising $1 million to renovate M Health Fairview’s Journey Clinic

Casey O’Brien, a five-time cancer survivor and former Gopher Football player, plans to raise $1 million to make the outpatient clinic a more comfortable place for patients.


Image by Alexa Lewis

Casey O’Brien poses outside of the University of Minnesota Health Children’s Hospital on June 18th. O’Brien has plans to raise 1 million dollars for the hospital in the coming years.

by Sonja Kleven

Casey O’Brien, a five-time cancer survivor and a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, started the Team One-Four fundraising campaign at the beginning of June to raise $1 million to renovate M Health Fairview’s Journey Clinic.

So far, O’Brien’s campaign — named after his jersey number while football playing for the Gophers — has raised over $125,000 to add integrated health services and entertainment, like Netflix, Spotify, books and more, to every room in the outpatient clinic.

“The idea behind it is that, you know, obviously, we are not going to cure cancer overnight, but what we can do overnight is we can make that experience better for kids who have to spend time at the hospital,” O’Brien said.

The money will also go toward expanding the services that the clinic can offer in an outpatient setting. And because the clinic serves children of all ages, needs will vary, according to Dr. Brenda Weigel, the director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology at the University of Minnesota.

While the clinic currently offers integrated health and well-being services like massages, music and art therapy for those staying in inpatient care, the services offered in the outpatient setting are limited.

“We do not ever want to have someone look forward to the coming to the hospital, but we do not want their days to seem like they go forever,” O’Brien said. “We want to keep people busy so that the whole family can find something that they like to do.”

Inspiration for the fundraiser

Located on the ninth floor of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, the Journey Clinic serves pediatric patients with cancer and other blood diseases receiving treatments that do not require an overnight stay.

It is also where O’Brien received treatment for osteosarcoma, a malignant tumor of a bone.

Because doctors are able to do more treatments, especially for cancer, without keeping patients overnight, the clinic has become increasingly important in recent years, according to Weigel.

“It is not only for the children with cancer, which is the majority of the patients, but also there are patients who receive very frequent treatment [at the Journey clinic] with many other illnesses,” Weigel said. “So, kids with rheumatologic disorders, endocrine disorders and genetic disorders that have infusion therapy, all get treated at the Journey clinic. It is incredibly important.”

O’Brien said the idea to renovate the Journey Clinic sparked after he finished his last football game in December. The following day, O’Brien called the University of Minnesota Foundation, the fundraising organization for the University, to talk about his initial idea: donating one of his jerseys to the ninth floor.

“I wanted to hang a jersey up on that floor so that when kids came off the elevator, they could see my jersey and say, ‘No matter what kind of news I get or whatever kind of chemo I have to go through today, someone else has been here and they are still able to live out their dream, so I can still live out my dreams, too,’” O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s idea evolved after talking with Nicholas Engbloom, the director of community partnerships for the University of Minnesota Foundation.

“And so [Engbloom], who I was talking with about fundraising, he was like, ‘Yeah, that is a really great idea, but why don’t we just raise a million dollars instead?’” O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s cancer journey

O’Brien was first diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 13 years old after doctors found a tumor on his knee. Over the next nine months, O’Brien traveled to the University’s hospitals to undergo chemotherapy treatments and a knee replacement — and his doctors told him that his football career was over.

“I knew that I did not want to be done playing football because it really felt like it was something that kept me motivated through all my chemo,” O’Brien said. “Being in a team locker room and being a part of something that was bigger than me was really important to me.”

After beating cancer once in high school and playing as the placeholder for his football team at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, O’Brien decided he wanted to play football at the division one level.

But he said that many universities, though they liked his story, were concerned about taking on liability if he were to get injured, instead offering him a spot as only a practice squad player.

“I did not want to do that,” O’Brien said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I would have a chance to play.”

O’Brien got his chance from P.J. Fleck, the University of Minnesota’s head football coach, as a freshman in 2017. He played for the team throughout his time at the University, playing important roles in two games during his sophomore year.

“Casey is one of the best people you will ever meet, so his effort to raise $1 million for the M Health Fairview’s Journey Clinic doesn’t surprise me,” Fleck said. “His life, even with everything he has been through, has always been about serving and giving to others … When you do that you find success in your life as well.”

After overcoming cancer once, O’Brien’s cancer came back in the spring of his freshman year at the University and then again during his junior year.

He would take chemotherapy pills at practice and travel to the Journey Clinic every Wednesday for treatments. All the time spent at the clinic meant O’Brien learned how important it was to have activities to do while receiving treatments, he said.

What’s next for Team One-Four

O’Brien and his Team One-Four team campaign plan to collaborate with the hospital to host fundraising events in the fall in an effort to reach the $1 million goal.

“I just want to really highlight how exceptional Casey is and his commitment to giving back,” Weigel said. “His commitment to wanting to highlight a part of the hospital that is integral to the care and treatment of so many … I admire him greatly for what he is doing and he truly, truly is an amazing young man.”