Test Results Clear Mandi Schwartz for Next Phase of Her Battle with Cancer; Search for Life-Saving Donors Intensifies

Mandi Schwartz. (photo by David Silverman, dspics.com)
Mandi Schwartz. (photo by David Silverman, dspics.com)

World-Wide Effort to Find Bone Marrow or Cord Blood Donors Gaining Momentum

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – As the world-wide search for donors continues and news of her courageous battle with cancer garners more and more attention, Mandi Schwartz passed a significant hurdle on Wednesday. Tests in her native Saskatchewan, where she had been receiving chemotherapy, indicated that she is in remission. That clears Mandi, a center on the Yale women’s ice hockey team, for the next phase of her treatment: a trip to Seattle and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. There, she will receive a stem cell transplant within the next 30-60 days. The success of that transplant depends entirely on finding her a match through a campaign -- “Become Mandi’s Hero” -- designed to educate people throughout the world about the urgent need for umbilical cord blood donors and bone marrow donors.

The “Become Mandi’s Hero” campaign is the brainchild of Dr. Tedd Collins, a New Haven-based clinical immunologist who specializes in finding donors for patients whose heritage (in Mandi’s case, German, Russian and Ukrainian) makes it difficult to find matches. In addition to seeking potential bone marrow donors, Dr. Collins is focused on umbilical cord blood donations. Partially matched bone marrow cells frequently result in a life-ending graft versus host response after the transplant. Umbilical cord blood has the same life-saving stem cells as bone marrow, but partially matched umbilical cord blood stem cells rarely cause life-ending consequences. Thus, one of the primary goals of “Become Mandi’s Hero” is educating expectant couples -- and their doctors -- about the value of umbilical cord blood donation.

Dr. Collins has been urging people to become “One Hour Heroes” by spending an hour of their time contacting OB/GYNs or delivery hospitals to see about getting a brochure outlining the benefits of umbilical cord blood donation distributed. As the time of Mandi’s transplant draws near, it has become all the more important to locate couples expecting a baby within the next month or so who are willing to donate the umbilical cord.

Those efforts have started to pay off. Dr. Collins said that on Wednesday alone there were five women in various delivery rooms throughout the world giving birth to babies whose umbilical cords -- instead of being discarded -- were being donated to “Become Mandi’s Hero” for testing to see if the blood in them could match Mandi. The ultimate goal is to test at least 200 umbilical cord blood donations, which Dr. Collins feels should be enough to result in at least two matches that could be used for a transplant for Mandi. Those not used in a transplant for Mandi will either be privately banked for the original donors or placed in a public bank, where they could wind up benefiting anyone in need. There are approximately 80 diseases and medical conditions -- leukemia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, liver disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and many others -- that can be treated using cord blood stem cells.

In addition to the work being done to find umbilical cord donors, there are also a series of bone marrow donor testing drives that have been inspired by Mandi. Former Yale men’s hockey player Brennan Turner ‘09, who has known Mandi since attending the same high school as her (Athol Murray College of Notre Dame), has been organizing a series of drives throughout Canada in conjunction with CBC’s Play On! 4 on 4 street hockey tournament.

Mandi, 22, was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December of 2008, just days after helping the Yale women’s hockey team to a 4-1 win over Brown. She returned home to Wilcox, Sask., and underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy. She was in remission by the spring of 2009, and returned to Yale in January of 2010 to complete her junior year. But less than four months later tests revealed the cancer had returned. She returned home in April and immediately began undergoing chemotherapy while Dr. Collins began working in earnest to locate donors for her.

The humble, hard-working Schwartz is known to all of her Yale teammates as a leader by example. And as more and more people get word of her battle with leukemia, she is now inspiring people on a completely different level. Membership in the “Become Mandi’s Hero” Facebook group that Dr. Collins started is close to 6,000 and growing rapidly -- thanks in part to the National Hockey League posting a link to a story about Mandi on its Facebook page and Twitter account. Many of Mandi’s supporters have switched their Facebook profile photos to an action photo of her playing for Yale.

Mandi’s story is also spreading well beyond social networking websites. A series of media stories last week turned out to be just the first wave; in just the last few days Mandi made the front page of both Yahoo! and NCAA.com. An Associated Press story about her earlier in the week was picked up by countless media outlets. ESPN came to Ingalls Rink on Wednesday to tape interviews with Dr. Collins and others, and other television stations and newspapers have stories in the works.

Wednesday’s test results were the latest in a series of positive steps for Mandi, who had been battling pneumonia in addition to undergoing chemotherapy. She was well enough recently to leave the hospital for her grandmother’s birthday party. She also received a phone call with words of encouragement from Olympic gold medal winning speed skater Dan Jansen, who has had members of his own family battle leukemia.

The next big step for Mandi will be the trip from Saskatchewan to Seattle, which she must take by car as she is not well enough to fly. But as Wednesday’s test results indicate, she is starting to turn the tide in her battle with leukemia again.


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