Yale Football’s John Oppenheimer Makes Life-Saving Marrow Donation

John Oppenheimer makes a life-saving marrow donation.
John Oppenheimer makes a life-saving marrow donation.

Signed Up at Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – In the spring of 2011, during his freshman year at Yale, John Oppenheimer recalls sitting in a meeting with his Yale football teammates in preparation for the team's annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale. Oppenheimer had never heard about marrow donation before, but one of the speakers in particular caught his attention that day. Lexy Adams, a Yale field hockey player who had signed up at the 2010 drive, spoke to the group about how she had just donated to a patient with a life-threatening illness in need of a marrow transplant.

"I remember Lexy speaking about how she saved a life through a transplant," said Oppenheimer. "I thought it was really cool, and she inspired me. I thought that what she did was remarkable."

At the drive itself a few weeks later, Oppenheimer joined the Be The Match Registry® through a brief process consisting of a series of cheek swabs that provided the necessary genetic information from his cells. Just like the rest of his teammates, he then went to work helping 100s of others register. He had no idea that he had just put himself on the path to doing what Adams had done -- helping save someone's life.

Now in its fifth year, the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale takes place every spring and is open to the general public (potential donors must be ages 18 to 44 to join the registry at the drive). This year's drive is scheduled for Thursday, Apr. 18 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at Commons. In addition to the football team, the drive is run by the field hockey and women's ice hockey teams. This year the New Haven County Medical Association is assisting as well.

The drive has added more than 3,000 people to the Be The Match Registry® so far, helping to find 17 genetic matches for transplants for patients with life-threatening blood cancers -- like leukemia and lymphoma -- and other diseases. It is part of the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign started by Villanova head coach Andy Talley. That program includes more than 30 college football teams across the country leading marrow donor registration drives. Yale's drive is named after women's ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz '10 (1988-2011).

Now a junior, Oppenheimer got an unexpected call from Be The Match® this past fall. The representative explained that Oppenheimer was a close match to a 41-year-old man in Europe with cancer (leukemia) who needed a marrow transplant. There were three other potential donors, so further testing was needed to determine the best match.

"I was really shocked, just caught off guard," Oppenheimer said. "I called my mom and dad after I got off the phone with Be The Match, and they were very supportive and very happy that I was choosing to go through with the process."

The next step for Oppenheimer was a blood test, which he did at a facility in New Haven -- "literally a block away from my house," he said, emphasizing how easy the whole process was.

About a month later, Oppenheimer got another call. Based on the additional testing, he was the best match for the patient in need.

The Be The Match representative offered to give Oppenheimer some time to decide whether he wanted to go through with the donation process, but he was ready.

"People tend to think it over for a couple days. On the spot, I said I was fully willing to do it," Oppenheimer said. "It just seems like such an easy way to make a huge impact, and I had never had the chance to do that. I told her I would be happy and excited to go through with the donation."

The decision was an easy one for Oppenheimer as he thought more and more about the recipient -- even though he only had a handful of details about him. Due to privacy policies, Oppenheimer will never be able to meet the patient who received his donation, but he can get updates on how the patient is doing after six months.

"This guy is 41; he's probably someone's father," Oppenheimer said. "Just putting myself in his shoes … especially if this man has children, you can only imagine how badly he wants someone out there to donate to him."

During reading week in December, Oppenheimer had a physical in New York that confirmed he was healthy enough to donate. He returned to New York in mid-January, making his donation on the first Tuesday after spring semester classes started.

"I got a needle in each arm, and they extracted the stem cells from my blood using a machine," he said. "I basically had to stay still for five hours, but it was in a comfortable recliner chair. Essentially it just felt like a five-hour blood test. After 20 or 30 minutes I got used to the needles and felt completely comfortable. I ended up watching TV and movies and even took a nap in between. It was a great overall experience, something that I really cherish getting the opportunity to do. I would do it again 100 times out of 100. It's an easy way to have an impact on someone else's life."

After that, Oppenheimer returned to New Haven while his stem cells headed off to the patient in Europe.

During the whole process spanning several weeks, Oppenheimer missed only two off-season workouts before he was back with his teammates getting ready for the 2013 season. The team's starting center last year, "Oppy" is believed to be the first Yale football player to donate after registering at one of the team's drives. After years of working on the drive, the Bulldogs finally have one of their own as a donor.

"We were definitely excited that our work on this drive had continued paying off, with me being a match. Proud and excited were the reactions that I got from teammates," Oppenheimer said. "I'm very blessed, and I believe everything happens for a reason. I hope that, since I was chosen, I can actually make a difference. Since I'm the first Yale football player, hopefully I can get as many other people as possible to donate. I want to use the platform that I've been given to make an even bigger impact."

Now entering his third drive, Oppenheimer is looking forward to volunteering on Apr. 18, when members of all three teams spend the day assisting potential donors with the registration process. In addition to joining the registry himself freshman year, Oppenheimer spent that drive day at the swabbing station, guiding people through the cheek swabs that provide the necessary DNA samples.

The Bulldogs attracted 869 registrants that day -- more than any other school in the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign that year.

"It was around lunchtime when I volunteered, and it was pretty hectic. It was really cool to see how many people came through," Oppenheimer said.

As a sophomore last year he shifted roles, becoming a "hawker" -- standing with some of his teammates on Cross Campus, directing people to the drive location (Commons, Yale's central dining hall) a block away.

"Hawking is a really important job," said Oppenheimer. "It's probably the most important part of the drive and why we're so successful. Commons is a central location, but not everyone is walking directly by there. It's huge to have people in other spots. You can't miss us if you're walking through Cross Campus. One of us is going to talk to you and explain the importance of joining the registry."

As a hawker, Oppenheimer saw first-hand how members of the community responded when told that they could help save someone's life with a series of cheek swabs.

"It's really encouraging how many students will just drop what they're doing and say 'OK, I'll go do that,'" Oppenheimer said. "It's just great to see that the students at Yale are so willing to help somebody else and possibly help save a life."

While the football team has its own motivations to make the drive a success, nothing can compare to the motivation of the women's ice hockey team. They initially became involved because their teammate, Mandi, was diagnosed with cancer (leukemia) in December of 2008. After searching for a genetic match for more than two years, she passed away in April of 2011 at the age of 23. The drive was named in her honor shortly before she passed away, and her women's ice hockey teammates continue to lead the Bulldogs' efforts.

"It's really inspiring how much the women's ice hockey players care about this drive, especially for Mandi," Oppenheimer said. "Without them this drive would not have had the success that it has had. They are just superstars."

An economics major in Berkeley College, Oppenheimer will spend the first part of this summer interning at Autodesk back home in California and the second part taking classes at Yale. He is planning on pursuing a career in marketing, so he knows how important it is to spread the word about the upcoming drive through any and all means -- Facebook, Twitter, e-mails, posters, flyers and more. A study break on Old Campus the night before the drive has been added to this year's plans.

"The main thing is for everyone to get the word out to all their friends," Oppenheimer said. "We definitely get competitive with it. I know we were really disappointed last year, not only not to win (Villanova registered more potential donors than Yale) but not to break our own record (921 in 2010). The goal is 1,000 and this year we're going to do everything in our power to try to get 1,000 people registered."

Like Adams, Oppenheimer recognizes the value of telling his donation story to inspire others to join the registry. He recently went out to the Yale Bowl to tape a promotional video for this year's drive.

"I know Lexy, and just knowing the she donated gave me even more confidence to do it myself," said Oppenheimer.

And while Yale will once again seek to lead the nation in registrants this year, the ultimate measure of success for all of these drives is how many matches for patients in need of transplants get located.

"The point isn't to win," Oppenheimer said. "The point is to make a difference."


Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale
Part of the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." Program for the Be The Match Registry®

  • Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013
  • 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • Yale University Commons, 168 Grove Street (corner of College Street and Grove Street), New Haven, Conn. (Directions)
  • Open to the general public (to join the registry, must be ages 18 to 44)
  • No advance registration required
  • Be The Match Registry® page: http://www.bethematchfoundation.org/goto/mandi
  • 1-800-MARROW-2


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