Heroes Start Lining Up as Search for Life-Saving Donor for Mandi Schwartz Continues

Photo: (C) Nicholas McIntosh - http://nicomack.com
Photo: (C) Nicholas McIntosh - http://nicomack.com

World-Wide Effort to Find Bone Marrow or Cord Blood Donors Begins Seeing Results

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Mandi Schwartz’ battle with cancer is about to enter another phase, and it’s one where success hinges largely on a simple concept: get the word out. Her friends, family and even total strangers must all raise awareness of the need for bone marrow or umbilical cord blood donors in order for her to have the best chance to survive. Mandi, a center on the Yale women’s ice hockey team, could be headed from Saskatchewan to Seattle as early as next week in preparation for a stem cell transplant. With that move in mind, the need to locate donors has intensified, as she could be undergoing a transplant within 30 days. The world-wide efforts to locate a genetic match for Mandi, coordinated through “Become Mandi’s Hero”, have begun seeing results from a variety of on-line efforts.

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.

As Mandi recovers from both chemotherapy and pneumonia, her story has helped inspired a surge in interest in bone marrow and cord blood donation. Dr. Tedd Collins, a New Haven-based clinical immunologist, started “Become Mandi’s Hero” with the goal of locating a match for her, particularly in light of how difficult her heritage (German, Russian and Ukrainian) makes it to find someone who is genetically similar. Even among her own family members, no-one was a close-enough match to be a transplant candidate.

The efforts to find a donor received a much-needed boost this past week as word of Schwartz’ need began spreading. By Monday Mandi was the lead story on USCHO.com, one of the most-visited websites in college hockey. On Tuesday AOL’s FanHouse website ran a compelling feature story on Mandi and “Become Mandi’s Hero, sparking an instant surge in interest. The story was shared on Facebook more than 1,200 times and generated more than 130 comments on FanHouse, putting it ahead of every other story on the website at the time. On Wednesday, Yale University sent out an e-mail to everyone at Yale – some 30,000 people – with instructions on what could be done to help Mandi.

All that exposure led to some dramatic results. In one 24-hour period starting Wednesday morning, membership in the “Become Mandi’s Hero” Facebook group grew by nearly 1,000 people, and more than 3,000 people are now in the group. The added exposure also had a measurable impact on the most important category: the number of donors enrolled. Dr. Collins said that in just one day earlier this week 20 donors enrolled, basically doubling the amount that had enrolled to that point. And five of those enrolled babies have already been born and have had their umbilical cords donated in an effort to save Mandi’s life.

In addition to umbilical cord blood donors, the search for bone marrow donors also continues. Many people have heard about the process of joining the marrow donor registry – which consists of simple cheek swabs – for the first time through Mandi’s story. Former Yale men’s hockey player Brennan Turner ’09 has been organizing a series of marrow drives throughout Canada in conjunction with CBC’s Play On! 4 on 4 street hockey tournament, and the first drive this past weekend in Winnipeg netted 200 potential donors. Turner’s efforts have also helped generate a large amount of media coverage in Canada, with more than a dozen newspaper articles and radio appearances to date.

Even with the recent progress, more help is needed. Dr. Collins is now urging people to become “One Hour Heroes” by spending an hour of their time contacting OB/GYNs or delivery hospitals to see about getting Mandi’s brochure 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 and join the growing list of “Mandi’s Heroes”.

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