April 21, 2011

Mandi Schwartz Remembered; Drive Takes Place Thursday

Bulldogs Pay Tribute to Teammate in Ceremony at Yale

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Friends and teammates of Yale women's ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz (1988-2011) gathered in Calhoun College Wednesday night to pay tribute to her, reflecting on a life that ended too soon but nonetheless will have a lasting impact. Her courageous battle with cancer ended after more than two years when she passed away on Apr. 3 -- but the efforts to help others that she inspired remain. Wednesday's ceremony was held on the eve of the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registry Drive, an annual event at Yale that has already added more than 1,600 people to the Be The Match registry for patients with life-threatening illnesses who are in need of transplants.

Those drives are just one example of the impact Mandi has had; that impact was also reflected in the wide array of people at Wednesday's ceremony. In addition to her Yale teammates, many members of the Yale athletic department administration attended, as Mandi worked in the athletic director's office. Many of her fellow students were there as well, including several athletes from other Yale teams.

Additionally, at least one of the life-saving donors who registered through the drives held in Mandi's honor was at Wednesday's ceremony. To date, five stem cell donations for patients with life-threatening illnesses are known to have occurred because of those drives; a sixth is scheduled to take place shortly.

Mandi's Yale hockey teammates have joined the Yale football team and now the Yale field hockey team in leading those drives each year, a sure indication of the impact she has had on each of them as individuals. They have also found other ways to reflect her compassionate nature; one of the attendees on Wednesday night was Giana, the nine-year-old brain tumor survivor that the team adopted and introduced last November during the "White Out for Mandi" fundraiser game.

Mandi's teammates had flown to her hometown of Wilcox, Sask., to attend her funeral there on Apr. 8. As they did in that ceremony, which was held in her high school (Athol Murray College of Notre Dame), the Bulldogs donned their Yale uniforms Wednesday night. Mandi's No. 17 jersey hung on the wall behind the podium.

Yale Chaplain Sharon Kugler opened the ceremony.

"Tonight we are one family united by the gift of Mandi Schwartz," Kugler said. "Though the bitterness of loss is healed, it is still tender to the touch. We can only be grateful that she was one among us."

Jonathan Holloway, Master of Calhoun (Mandi's residential college), then spoke. In addition to acknowledging many of the people at Yale who had been such a key part of Mandi's story, Holloway also spoke of the incredible effect that Mandi had on so many others.

As Holloway noted, Mandi was a "profoundly private person", one who remained engaged but was always happy to let others have the spotlight.

"But isn't it fascinating that this quiet life has produced something so magnificent?" Holloway asked. "That is, successive years of record-breaking bone marrow registration on campus. Isn't it wonderful that a community quest for a cure for Mandi has resulted in five bone marrow matches that are giving others a chance at life?"

With those matches having already been identified, and with the likelihood that many more will be found in the future, it was clear that Mandi's story would ultimately be one permeated by a sense of hope.

"We acknowledge that Mandi's legacy will live on in ways that we are only beginning to grasp," Holloway said.

After readings by Mandi's teammates Aleca Hughes and Heather Grant,  Psalm 139:7-14 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, the four seniors on the team gave their remembrances.

"Mandi was a quiet leader on our team," said Lili Rudis. "She never yelled or pouted or got frustrated with anyone else. But that is not to say she was not demanding. Mandi demanded the best in us by bringing her own best effort every day."

Rudis recalled Mandi's phenomenal work ethic. Not only was that reflected in the one year when Mandi was the only person to pass a demanding running test early in the season; it was also evident late in 2008, before Mandi was officially diagnosed with leukemia, when she began feeling the physical effects of the disease. Her response was to push herself even more.

"Her energy began to flag," Rudis recalled. "She was trying as hard as ever, but her legs just weren't responding the way they used to … Mandi just worked out harder and longer, almost always the first one on the ice and the last one off."

Bray Ketchum spoke of the time in December of 2008 when Mandi, having just been diagnosed, had to return home to Canada immediately to begin treatment. In typical fashion, Mandi remained positive and upbeat for the sake of her teammates as they struggled to cope with the news.

"We packed her up that night, and when she was leaving early the next morning she gave us each a hug and smiled calmly and said 'I'll see you guys soon'," Ketchum said. "This is exactly the type of person Mandi was. She always put her friends in front of herself; she never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her or go out of their way for her."

Ketchum recalled Mandi making her return to Yale early in 2010, after several rounds of chemotherapy back in Saskatchewan had put her in remission. In addition to practicing with the team in preparation for an intended comeback in the 2010-11 season, Mandi also joined a group of her teammates on a trip to Cancun for Spring Break. Ketchum described Mandi diving deep into the ocean while snorkeling.

"She was at the bottom of the ocean with a huge smile on her face. I've never seen Mandi so happy," Ketchum said. "This is just one memory that I will always have of Mandi. She lived life to the fullest."

Jackee Snikeris spoke of Mandi's humble nature. As news of her need for a genetically matched donor for a stem cell transplant spread during the summer and fall of 2010, Mandi became the subject of stories on media outlets all across the country and the world. Such attention was foreign to her, coming from a town with a population of just a few hundred people. But Mandi also knew that, through telling her story, the awareness that was raised would surely help other patients in need of donors.

"She was so incredibly selfless," Snikeris recalled. "Even when her story swept throughout Canada and the United States, Mandi was shy about the attention she received, but expressed her happiness that the bone marrow drives in her honor would save the lives of many other people in her situation."

And even when she learned that she had relapsed, and her doctors told her that there was no further chance of a cure, Mandi remained strong for the sake of those around her.

"Mandi did not think even once of pitying herself," Snikeris said. "Rather, she rose up to the challenges ahead and made sure everyone around her was on board with her plan to keep the disease from defining her life. She was an incredibly strong and brave person. She somehow always managed to have a smile on her face and was ready for the next battle … She led with her actions and inspired all of us with her spirit on and off the ice."

Samantha MacLean, Yale's captain, affirmed the lasting nature of Mandi's impact.

"All of the values that Mandi embodied will live on in our team and hockey program," said MacLean. "Her legacy will also live on in the bone marrow drives that have been, and will continue to be, held in her honor … Mandi will not only continue to help save the lives of other patients struggling with cancer, she will also help save countless families and friends from losing someone they love as much as we love Mandi."

Freshman forward Patricia McGauley, who is from the same home town and high school as Mandi, then sang "Ave Maria" just as she had at Mandi's funeral -- this time, a capella.

After Chaplain Kugler closed the ceremony, a highlight video of Mandi on and off the ice gave those in attendance one more chance to reflect on her as a player and as a person. Many of the attendees remained behind to sign a book for the Schwartz family and to share stories.

Chaplain Kugler's words provided perspective as the Bulldogs headed off into the night, knowing that tomorrow would bring the opportunity to continue helping others in Mandi's memory.

"When Mandi's death was reported in the news earlier this month, they said she had lost her battle with cancer. I found those words to be quite far from the real truth," Kugler said. "I had hoped to hear better words, ones that could more accurately describe what these last few years were about for Mandi. 'Losing' was not it. Mandi dedicated herself to fighting as hard as she could against something that ultimately became insurmountable. But did she lose? No. Mandi's struggle brought out the very best in her and all those who knew her, and scores more that never had the privilege …The donor drive that kicks off tomorrow is living proof of that."

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

 

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