A Life-Saving Match, with an Assist from Mandi Schwartz ’10 (1988-2011) and Yale

Marrow donor Christopher Magoon (right) embraces transplant recipient Erika Turner as Robin Roberts looks on.
Marrow donor Christopher Magoon (right) embraces transplant recipient Erika Turner as Robin Roberts looks on.

Donor, Recipient Meet for First Time on ABC’s “Good Morning America”

Good Morning America story

WTNH story

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Erika Turner and Christopher Magoon ’11 were total strangers until a series of events led to Magoon becoming a life-saving marrow donor who helped Turner beat cancer in 2010 -- and a crucial event in that series happened at Yale, at a drive inspired by a woman neither of them knew. Magoon was chosen as a genetic match for Turner shortly after he joined the Be The Match Registry through the annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale. He and Turner were in the national spotlight Wednesday, as they met for the first time on ABC’s “Good Morning America”. ABC’s Robin Roberts, who has been diagnosed with myelodysplastic systems and is scheduled to have a bone marrow transplant in the near future, facilitated the introduction. 

In addition to the story on “Good Morning America”, Connecticut-based ABC affiliate WTNH ran a follow-up story later in the day with members of the Yale football team, which organizes the drive each spring with help from the women’s ice hockey and field hockey teams. Since the Yale Athletics department first began holding marrow donor registration drives inspired by women’s ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz ’10 (1988-2011) in 2009, the Bulldogs have added more than 3,000 potential donors to the Be The Match Registry. That has led to at least 14 marrow donations for patients with life-threatening illnesses who are in need of genetic matches for transplants.

"Christopher, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart with my whole soul and my whole being," Turner told Magoon during the emotional on-air meeting.  "Thank you for giving me back to my parents.  Thank you for giving me back to my kids and to my husband.  I love you and there's nothing in this world that I would not do for you because you did it for me.  I love you.  I love you."

A mother of two teenage boys, Turner was working full-time at a hospital when she began feeling tired and noticing that she bruised more easily. A resident at the hospital pointed out that it looked like her platelets were low, and after numerous tests Turner was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia with Philadelphia positive chromosome in September 2010.

Doctors knew immediately that Turner would need a marrow transplant to survive, but no one in her family was a donor match. Luckily, she was able to find a matching donor -- Magoon -- on the Be The Match Registry. She received her transplant in December 2010.

Like Turner, Magoon is from Ohio (originally from North Canton, he attended North Canton Hoover High School). A history major and member of Berkeley College at Yale, he joined the Be The Match Registry at the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale in the spring of 2010, his junior year.

The Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale is part of the “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” campaign, which was started by Villanova football coach Andy Talley. Through that program, NCAA football teams across the country lead marrow donor registration drives on their respective campuses. At Yale, the women’s ice hockey team joins the football team, and the field hockey team -- whose roster includes another marrow donor, senior back Lexy Adams -- helps lead as well. The drives are held annually in April.

Magoon was inspired to join after seeing the impact the Bulldogs’ efforts had throughout the campus. Mandi herself assisted in planning the 2010 drive, as she was in remission at that time after first being diagnosed with cancer (acute myeloid leukemia) in December 2009. But she relapsed right before the drive and returned home to Saskatchewan to start another round of chemotherapy. She passed away in the spring of 2011 at the age of 23.

 “More than anything, the tremendous efforts of the bone marrow drive for Mandi is what made me want to get registered,” said Magoon. “It was really inspiring to see the Yale community, especially the athletic community, rally to help a student-athlete in need. Specifically, one of my best college friends, Lili Rudis [‘11], who was on the women’s hockey team, reached out to me to get registered.” 

A few months after registering, Magoon was notified by Be The Match that he had been identified as a potential genetic match for a patient in need. After first being contacted, all potential donors go through further steps to ensure that they are the best match possible before they make the actual donation.

“I was really excited when I found out I might be a match for someone,” Magoon said. “It all happened so gradually that I can’t recall the first instance that I really believed the thing was a go, but I was hopeful every step along the way.  I got the call that I was a full match when my mom was having a fairly tricky brain surgery, so I know what it is like to have a sick family member.  In those tough moments, it’s easy to feel a certain amount of helplessness.  The marrow donation allowed me to take an active role in helping someone in need -- and I was thrilled to do it.” 

Magoon made his donation at the Cleveland Clinic, about an hour from his hometown, and was asleep for the entire procedure.

“I spent the next couple days mostly on the couch but after a week or so I was back to normal activity,” Magoon said. “Overall, I’d like people to know that the donation process is really not that bad.  I think the procedure has a stigma for being particularly painful and it really is not.  I would do it again in a second if I had the opportunity.” 

Magoon has spent the past year in China with funding from the Henry Luce Scholars program. He worked for a non-profit organization called Teach for China and was in the Teacher Training program, working in various rural schools in Yunnan province. He is moving back to China in September to continue working in the same area, this time directly with his own students at a vocational nursing school. He is considering going into medicine eventually.

Now, nearly two years after his donation helped save Turner’s life, Magoon has finally met her in person.

“I consider myself one small part of an entire host of people who helped Erika beat her sickness,” Magoon said. “I had the easy job -- all I had to do was go to sleep and spend a few days on the couch watching TV.  The real thanks belongs to Erika’s friends and family, the members of the Yale community who worked so hard to turn Mandi’s sickness into an opportunity to help other people in need, and the medical and hospital staff who executed in all the procedures and logistics so efficiently.  I hope that Erika’s story can be used as a proof point that Mandi’s legacy continues on even after she is gone, and that the hard work that goes into the marrow drives in her memory has a real, humanitarian payoff.”

Magoon also summed up his advice for anyone who has not registered:

“To anyone who is not in the bone marrow registry, please, please go to bethematch.org today and register.  It’s worth it.  I promise.”

For more information on Mandi Schwartz and the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale, visit http://www.yalebulldogs.com/mandi

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