November 20, 2009

How’s Mandi Doing?

Senior Forward Planning Comeback

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -It has been almost a year since Yale senior forward Mandi Schwartz was diagnosed with leukemia, and seven months since her women's hockey teammates joined with the Yale football team for a record-setting marrow donor testing drive - a drive that helped save another leukemia patient's life. As both of those teams get set to battle archrival Harvard this weekend in New Haven, Schwartz remains home in Saskatchewan, where she returned for treatment. But she is still very much on the minds of her many friends at Yale, and she recently checked in with some good news.

Schwartz was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last December and immediately returned home to Wilcox, Sask., to battle the potentially fatal condition and start five rounds of chemotherapy. Back in New Haven, her teammates did their best to express their continued support. That culminated last April, when the football and women's hockey teams combined to host a marrow donor testing drive at Commons that attracted more than 700 potential donors.

The drive was part of the nationwide "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign involving dozens of college football teams. It had started at Villanova, and Bulldog assistant coach Larry Ciotti brought it to Yale with the support of Tom Williams, who had just taken over as Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. None of the other schools that participated had ever witnessed the type of turnout Yale had. Potential donors crammed into Commons, and eventually spilled out on to Beinecke Plaza, as they awaited the chance to have their cheeks swabbed and their names added to the National Marrow Donor Program's list of potential donors.

Shortly after the drive, Schwartz had some good news of her own to report on the CaringBridge website her teammates set up for her to provide updates on her progress. She was discharged from the hospital on Mar. 17 and went for a bone marrow biopsy to see how effective her treatment had been.

Schwartz wrote:

The biopsy didn't hurt too bad, and we had the results back the very next day. The results were great because there was no leukemia detected in my marrow! ... So, after 5 rounds of strong chemo treatment, 130 days in the hospital, 29 days out of the hospital, 6 bone marrow biopsies, 3 spinal taps, 3 PIC lines, countless blood and platelet transfusions, many different antibiotics, 1 injection to raise my neutrophils, a few allergic reactions to platelets, 1 scary episode of severe viruses, infections and bad vitals towards the end of February, 1 blood clot, and tons of prayers, support and encouragement from everyone that I know...and some that I don't know, I am healthy once again and free to live my life normally.

For Schwartz, that meant a summer spent working out to get back in shape. She will return to Yale in January, and will be able to practice and work out with the hockey team during the second semester as she re-gains her strength. She plans to complete her comeback by returning to the ice for the 2010-11 season.

"I have all of my energy back, I am feeling really healthy and strong, and my hair has all grown back," Schwartz said recently. "I plan on returning to Yale in January. Then I am looking forward to playing a full hockey season next year. I can't wait to get back to Yale, and to see my teammates and friends, and to thank everyone for all of their support while I was sick."

Schwartz has been skating at her high school, Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, and taking classes at the University of Saskatchewan. She has also had the chance to see her younger brothers play. Rylan is a freshman at Colorado College, where he is second on the team in scoring (4-8-12) for the Tigers, who are 7-2-1. Jaden is in 12th grade and playing in the USHL for the Tri-City Storm, leading the 7-6-1 team in scoring (7-13-20). He also made Team Canada's Under-18 team this past summer, and won gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Slovakia.

With the game of hockey so deeply engrained in her family and her community, Schwartz is eager for her own chance to get back on the ice. She was quick to point out how the lessons she has learned as a student-athlete helped her during her treatment and recovery.

"Athletics played a role in my recovery for a variety of reasons," Schwartz said. "I was used to battling in sports and I was able to battle all kinds of adversity and challenges while I was in the hospital. I relied on mental toughness when I was in the hospital and also staying positive. I was in the hospital for six months and I had a week break between treatments. When I was in the hospital, I was confined to my room 24/7, so I relied on doing exercises on my yoga mat within my hospital room to keep my body moving. These exercises helped my body rebound quicker after treatments. There was one incident where I fainted after one of my workouts, but I continued with my hospital room exercises the very next day. Athletics has trained me to keep active and eat healthy, so that is what I continued to do in the hospital and now that I am out of the hospital." 

The electronic age has enabled Schwartz to stay up-to-date on the various happenings in New Haven even though she is 2,000 miles away.

"I am able to follow what is going on in New Haven a lot closer now that I am out of the hospital," Schwartz said. "I receive all of my team's emails through the pan list, so I always know what the team is up to, and stay updated on all of the jokes and stories that usually circle the locker room. We also text each other. I was touched and very proud of Yale when I read about their very successful marrow donor testing drive. I can't believe how hard the hockey and football teams worked to sign up donors. It's amazing how many people contributed to help make a difference."

In addition to Schwartz' good news, the good news has continued in New Haven. Over the summer, the Athletics Department learned that one of the people who had gotten tested at the marrow donor testing drive was a match for another leukemia patient, and had the ability to donate life-saving stem cells.

While her treatment has been effective so far, the long-term goal is to locate a marrow donor for Schwartz. The news that the Yale testing drive had helped another leukemia patient served as a reminder of how much impact the simple act of getting a cheek swabbed can have.

"I am very grateful that the marrow donor testing drive my team organized located a match to save someone's life," Schwartz said. "It just goes to show how one small act really can make a difference. I am so proud of my teammates, Coach Ciotti and the football players for putting in so much effort towards my cause and for so many other people. I am so proud of Yale and New Haven for contributing their time to help save lives by signing up to be possible bone marrow donors. It's amazing that their efforts paid off and that a marrow donor was located to help save someone's life, and I am so thankful for this miracle."

Those interested in being tested as potential marrow donors should visit the National Marrow Donor Program website at www.marrow.org (United States) or www.onematch.com (Canada) for information. For more information on Yale's marrow donor testing drive, visit http://www.yalebulldogs.com/sports/w-hockey/spec-rel/042309aaa.html

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity