April 21, 2011

Huge Turnout Again; Mandi Schwartz Drive Adds Nearly 900 to Be The Match Registry

Bulldogs Continue Efforts to Save Lives

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The woman that inspired the drives was gone, but her spirit clearly remained as Yale Athletics hosted its annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registry Drive Thursday at Commons. Mandi, the women's ice hockey center whose battle with cancer helped draw record-setting numbers of people to Yale's first two drives, had passed away just 18 days before Thursday's drive. With her tragic story still fresh in everyone's minds, the Bulldogs banded together and added nearly 900 people to the Be The Match Registry in Mandi's honor. It was the second biggest drive of its kind, trailing only Yale's drive from a year ago.

Larry Ciotti, the retired assistant football coach who started the drives at Yale two years ago and has coordinated them ever since, had a picture of Mandi pinned to his hat as he worked the drive Thursday. A year ago, she had been one of the key members of the drive committee. After first being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December of 2008 and leaving for treatment back home in Saskatchewan, Mandi had returned to New Haven in January 2010 after several rounds of chemotherapy put her in remission.

But she relapsed right before the 2010 drive, and never was able to return to New Haven before passing away in Saskatchewan earlier this month.

Still, Mandi's spirit was evident in the fact that hundreds of people showed up to swab their cheeks to provide DNA samples Thursday, hoping for the chance to be a genetic match for a patient in need of a transplant.

The drives had been named in Mandi's honor shortly before she passed away. Every year, thousands of people of all ages, like her, are diagnosed with leukemia and other life-threatening diseases. For many of them, a marrow transplant (or cord blood transplant) from a genetically matched donor is the best hope for a cure. Seventy percent of people do not have a donor in their family and depend on the Be The Match Registry to find a match to save their life.

Mandi's absence was felt throughout the day, but the knowledge that she continues to inspire others to save lives remained.

"It was bittersweet," Ciotti said. "Bitter in the fact that she wasn't here. She was here last year and was involved all the way up until the day of the drive, when she had to go home to begin chemotherapy. But today was sweet in the fact that it shows her memory lives on, and her sense of hope lives on."

With each passing year that the Yale athletics department does these drives, the challenge grows. Everyone who joins the registry remains in it, so after setting the record with 704 registrants in 2009 and breaking it last year with 921, the Bulldogs had crossed more than 1,600 people off the list of potential donors to sign up. And yet, they still managed to post remarkable numbers on Thursday. The final unofficial total was 869.

Be The Match Registry representative Chris Mulcahy, who helped coordinate Yale's drive for the second year in a row and works with other drives throughout the New England area, put the Bulldogs' achievement in context.

"I have done more than 800 of these drives, and the Yale drives remain, by far, the biggest," he said. "The next largest one, other than Yale, was about 435 people, so that really puts some perspective on these drives."

In addition to Ciotti's personal tribute, there were signs throughout the drive of the impact Mandi had. Her No. 17 jersey hung on the wall, and her photo was on posters and signs all over campus. Some of the volunteers at the event wore the No. 17 Yale Hockey t-shirts that had been produced as part of fundraisers for her over the past two years.

Mandi's women's ice hockey teammates have been a part of the drives ever since the first one. The drives are part of the nationwide "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign that includes roughly 30 college football programs. At Yale, Mandi's battle inspired the women's ice hockey team to join the football team's efforts to lead the drive. In addition to volunteering on the day of the drive, team members were responsible for signing up six donors each in advance of the drive.

For Mandi's teammates, Thursday capped an emotional time that included a trip to Wilcox, Sask., for her funeral on Apr. 8. There was also a memorial service at Yale on Wednesday, the eve of the drive.

"We left Wilcox feeling incredibly inspired and motivated," said junior forward Aleca Hughes. "We wanted to embrace Mandi's strength, which she showed throughout her battle. We felt as if that had been passed on to us. It has been an emotional journey, but an event like this was an opportunity to put our emotions to use for a great cause."

Facing the challenge of finding hundreds of new registrants, the Bulldogs had to get creative. With so many sophomores, junior and seniors already in the registry from the two previous drives, the Bulldogs knew that they needed to target the freshman class in particular. Thus, a challenge was issued to see which of the 12 residential colleges could get the most freshmen registered. Congratulations are in order to Saybrook, which finished at the head of the pack with 30, edging out Trumbull (26), Pierson (25) and Ezra Stiles (24).

Preparations for the drive began months earlier and paid dividends on Thursday. In addition to the football and women's ice hockey teams, the field hockey team joined in leading this year's drive, and the Bulldogs as a whole made a point of reaching out to as many different campus groups as possible.

"We knew we had a big challenge in front of us," Hughes said. "But by meeting early, we were able to figure out ways to bring together different groups. We had to get out of the confines of just the communities we had reached last year. Getting the residential colleges involved and getting the graduate schools involved was key. It was great that we added the field hockey team this year. We had a really passionate committee."

While each progressive year brings new challenges in terms of adding new people, there are some unique opportunities that having a history of drives does provide. One of those is the fact that the Bulldogs can now point to those lives that have been saved by matches found through previous drives. And in Yale's case, one of the people who made a life-saving donation was able to work Thursday's drive. Lexy Adams, a sophomore on the field hockey team, donated stem cells to a patient with cancer over Christmas break.

Recognizing her unique role in the efforts to increase drive participation, Adams composed an e-mail that she sent to various groups on campus explaining exactly how rewarding -- and easy -- the donation process was.

"Lexy did a beautiful job communicating to all of us what it was like to be a match," Hughes said. "She was able to tell us what it really means to be involved in something like this. It wasn't just another number; this was personal."

On Thursday, Adams camped out at the main entrance to Commons and helped encourage passersby to sign up for the registry.

"Having someone like Lexy, who was a match and has donated, was a huge help," Ciotti said. "She was able to tell her story to the media and on YouTube and explain how easy the donation process is. It's nice to have an athlete at your school that has been a match."

The Bulldogs have kept themselves motivated with new goals each year, and Ciotti challenged the teams to sign up 1,100 people in 2011. While that mark proved unreachable, the Bulldogs did want to make sure they finished this year with more registrants than any other college. Villanova has been one of Yale's primary competitors; the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign started there thanks to Wildcats head coach Andy Talley. Ciotti, Talley's friend, brought the campaign to Yale.

Villanova had held its drive last Friday and registered approximately 640 donors, so the Bulldogs took aim at that figure. They blew past the 650 mark at 3:30 p.m., with a half-hour left on the schedule, and kept going long after that. With nearly 100 more people added after the drive was initially scheduled to end, Yale finished at 869.

"We were just a few dozen away from breaking our own record," Ciotti said. "We still had the largest drive in the country, and there have to be some lives that will be saved because of these efforts."

As usual, the traffic ebbed and flowed after a slow start to the day. As classes let out, the crowd in Beinecke Plaza would swell, but the Bulldogs' efficient operation inside Commons kept the lines to a minimum. The Bulldogs came prepared, with 100s of testing kits already assembled. That eliminated the need to put them together on the day of the drive, freeing up space and time. Dozens of volunteers from all three teams staffed the half-dozen stations that potential donors went through to complete the registration process. Others worked the campus, rounding up passersby and pointing them to the registration location.

While the field hockey, football and women's ice hockey teams were the drive leaders, the rest of Yale's athletic teams were all well-represented, either as volunteers or as potential donors. And this year, inspired by Mandi, the Bulldogs even got some help from one of their competitors. At 2:30 p.m., the Quinnipiac women's ice hockey team showed up, jerseys and all. And the Bobcats weren't just there to swab their cheeks. After going through that process, they stuck around to help drum up additional donors.

"Having our cross-town rivals come help out at the drive was special," said Hughes. "It speaks volumes about those players, and about ECAC Hockey in general."

While the number of registrants has been outstanding, the ultimate goal is quality over quantity. The time and cost involved in adding a new individual to the Be The Match Registry is only worth it if the individual is actually willing to donate if called; adding someone to the registry who does not donate if identified as a match does no good for anyone. So far, the Bulldogs have established a track record of success in that category as well. Just a day before the drive, Ciotti learned of a sixth life-saving match that had been identified through Yale's efforts. That person will make a stem cell donation to save someone's life sometime within a month.

"It was quite a boost to get that e-mail," Ciotti said. "It came at an opportune time. Little things like that give you the energy to carry on in the volunteer work that you do."

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