Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive Adds Nearly 700 Potential Life Savers

Swabbing. (photo by Sam Rubin '95, Yale Sports Publicity)
Swabbing. (photo by Sam Rubin '95, Yale Sports Publicity)

Bulldogs Have Helped Save at Least 23 Lives to Date

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – To date the annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drives at Yale have located at least 23 donor matches for patients with life-threatening illnesses, and that number is likely to increase in the very near future thanks to the Bulldogs' efforts at the sixth annual drive, held Thursday at Commons. Over the course of nearly seven hours -- with volunteers from the field hockey, football and women's ice hockey teams leading the way -- Yale added 686 more people to the Be The Match Registry®. That brings the total number of registrants from Yale's six drives to 4,538.

Yale's annual drive is named in memory of women's ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz '10 (Wilcox, Sask.) (1988-2011). The drive is part of the Yale Day of Service initiative and is also part of the nationwide "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign for Be The Match®. The "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program started in 1992 at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley. That program, involving college athletic 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, is a friend of Talley's and brought the idea to Yale in 2009. The women's ice hockey team joined those efforts because of Mandi, and the field hockey team started assisting after field hockey player Lexy Adams '13 was identified as a match and donated to a patient in need during her sophomore year. Adams is one of several donor matches in the Yale Athletics community; the Bulldogs also have three football coaches who are marrow donors.

Mandi's story has been one of the driving forces behind the success of the Yale drives. In September 2010 she required a marrow transplant, performed at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, 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. Her younger brothers, Jaden and Rylan, play ice hockey as well. Jaden is with the NHL's St. Louis Blues and Rylan is with the AHL's Worcester Sharks.

Mandi's plight shed further light on the needs of cancer patients everywhere, and the value of marrow donation. Every year, thousands of people of all ages are diagnosed with blood cancers like leukemia and other life-threatening diseases. Many of them will die unless they get a marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant from a matching donor. Seventy percent of these patients do not have a donor in their family and depend on the Be The Match Registry® to find a genetic match to save their life.

Every year in the weeks leading up to the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive, members of all three Yale teams help spread the word about the need for donors to their classmates, friends and relatives. On the day of the drive, they volunteer at the various stations set up to assist potential donors with the registration process.

Dave Mason, one of the Be The Match® representatives who helped staff the tables inside Commons where registrants swabbed their cheeks and finished the registration process Thursday, credited the student-athlete volunteers with making the day as successful as it was.

"They were dedicated, friendly and professional," Mason said. "They learn on the fly really quickly. They're smart, and they're the nicest people. A lot of them stayed beyond what their allotted time was for volunteering and didn't want to leave their posts. Most of them had already registered previously and knew first-hand a lot of people that had been donors."

Mason, who just recently began working for Be The Match®, knew in advance that he should be prepared for a large number of registrants -- but still was pleasantly surprised by Thursday's turnout.

"It actually exceeded my expectations," Mason said. "This is by far the biggest drive, but also the best-run as well, in terms of the communication with the Yale community, New Haven, and how streamlined it was. Every year Yale raises the bar. The numbers may fluctuate, but they know there's always going to be a good turnout. It's a big focus here."

Yale's annual number of registrants has remained large even though the challenge grows with each passing 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.

Coach Ciotti has now seen six drives, and understands the effort involved. Preparations begin in earnest months beforehand, when the organizing committee first meets to divide up the responsibilities. In addition to the drive, the Bulldogs have now hosted a "Study Break" on Old Campus the night before the drive for each of the past two years to help raise awareness. Members of each of the teams involved then volunteer at least 90 minutes on the day of the drive.

 "The effort by football, field hockey and women's ice hockey is just tremendous," Ciotti said. "I'm always impressed by it. The enthusiasm to put the effort into succeeding at this drive has not diminished at all over the years. The coaches of the teams were all here as well, supported it and put in a lot of time working. That's so much appreciated."

In addition to helping save lives, the drive also serves as a bonding event for the Yale community in general, and Yale Athletics in particular.

"I think it's important for Yale teams to come together, and we have three teams here that come together for a common goal," Ciotti said. "It also does a lot for camaraderie within the teams. It's a goal that they set, it's an event they participate in and succeed at. I feel like that's important, as well as competing and practicing on the field."

Yale's drive is the largest "Get in the Game. Save a Life" drive so far this year (besting Villanova's total of 585 from last week). In each of the years from 2009 to 2011, Yale registered more potential donors than any other school in the program. That included 704 registrants in 2009, 921 in 2010 and 869 in 2011. Yale also led the nation in registrants last year with 843.