April 19, 2012

Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive Adds 500 More Potential Life Savers

Yale Teams Combine to Add to Be The Match Registry® in Memory of Bulldog Ice Hockey Player

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A year has gone by since Mandi Schwartz '10 (1988-2011) passed away after battling cancer for more than two years. Yet her impact remains evident in the annual marrow donor registration drive at Yale that is named in her memory. Thursday, her Yale women's ice hockey teammates once again worked together with the football and field hockey teams in an effort to save the lives of patients with illnesses similar to Mandi's. Yale's drive, part of the nationwide "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign, added more than 500 potential marrow donors to the Be The Match Registry® Thursday.

With an unofficial count of 515 registrants, Yale has now added more than 3,000 potential donors in Mandi's name through the four drives it has held. To date, those drives have located at least six genetic matches for patients with life-threatening illnesses in need of transplants.

While the process is simple for registrants -- paperwork and cheek swabs that take approximately 15 minutes -- the challenge for drive organizers grows every year. Once an individual has joined the registry there is no need for him or her to join again, so each year the Bulldogs have to find hundreds of new donors in addition to the ones that have signed up in previous years.

And yet, each year the three teams find a way to sign up enough of their classmates, family members, friends -- and even total strangers -- to make a major impact on the registry. Yale's drive has been the largest of its kind in each of the three previous years, including a record total of 921 registrants two years ago.

After so many years of doing drives, the Bulldogs are now very familiar with the elements needed to succeed. Planning starts month in advance, and members of each team are asked to get a certain number of people to commit to registering at the drive. Promotion and publicity on campus in advance of the drive helps, and when Drive day finally comes many donors know to head right to Commons.

But a key part of the drive is the work of the "hawkers" -- members of each team, assigned 90-minute slots throughout the day, who spread out across the campus to spread the word about the drive to those who may not have been aware of it otherwise.

"My favorite part of the drive is finding someone on the street who has never even heard of signing up to be a marrow donor before," said Aleca Hughes '12 (Westwood, Mass.), senior captain of the women's ice hockey team, who was recently honored with the 2012 BNY Mellon Wealth Management Hockey Humanitarian Award for her efforts on previous drives. "Then you explain to them how easy it is to help save someone's life, their face lights up, and they go register. And then you watch them come out the exit door knowing that they contributed to something so great."

One of the Bulldogs' key players in that regard is Lexy Adams '13 (Lancaster, Pa.) of the field hockey team. After signing up at the 2010 drive, Adams was identified as a genetic match and donated marrow to a patient with cancer a little more than a year ago. Now, on the day of the drive each year, she takes the role of "hawker" to another level by staking out a spot right in front of the drive entrance, where she can tell anyone who may be hesitating at the last minute just how easy the donation procedure is. Admittedly terrified of needles, Adams nonetheless went through with the donation and now helps convince others to do the same. One of Yale's other recent donors ran a marathon 11 days after donating, a fact which helps further allay any fears of potential donors.

In addition to the three Yale teams, the drive also included free food and appearances by Yale's live bulldog mascot, Handsome Dan, and Yale's costumed mascot, Boola. Tony Reno, Yale's new Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football, came by during lunchtime to join the registry. Coaches from all three teams assisted with the drive throughout the day.

Drives at other schools in the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign averaged 230 registrants in 2011, but the Bulldogs had passed that number by 1:30 on Thursday. Yale's drive was initially scheduled to end at 4:00, but donors were still coming in at that time -- including two members of "Sports Team 8" from WTNH, the local ABC affiliate, who were there to report on the story and then joined the registry themselves. The drive finally wrapped up at 4:30.

Mandi's story has been one of the driving forces behind the success of the Yale drives. In September 2010 she required a stem cell transplant that was designed to give her a new immune system using two anonymously donated units of umbilical cord blood. A biopsy in December 2010 indicated that she had relapsed, and she passed away at home in Saskatchewan on Apr. 3, 2011 at the age of 23.

The "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program started in 1992 at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley. The program, involving dozens of football teams organizing drives on their campuses, has resulted in tens of thousands of potential donors being tested. Larry Ciotti, an assistant football coach at Yale and former head coach at Hand High School in Madison, Conn., is a friend of Talley's and brought the idea to Yale.

That has resulted in a friendly competition between the two, and after Yale's drive concluded Thursday afternoon Ciotti was on the phone with Talley because Villanova had its drive on Thursday as well. The Wildcats have been one of the few teams to challenge Yale's spot at the top, topping out at 701 a couple years ago. The good news is that the two schools combined to add approximately 1,000 registrants Thursday. Villanova edged Yale by 20 for the "most donors" crown.

Yale also held a competition among its 12 residential colleges to see which could add the most donors, and Timothy Dwight college came away as the winner.

Hughes, who is part of the last class of women's ice hockey players who played alongside Mandi, summed up the feeling of the day while also turning attention to the future of the drive.

"Thank you to everyone in the Yale community and in the New Haven community that came out today to support the drive," said Hughes. "I hope in coming years people keep supporting this great cause. So many of the people that we talked to today were already registered, so it is important to get creative in finding ways to reach untapped sources of potential registrants." 

 

Be The Match Registry®:

Mandi Schwartz:

 

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