Bulldogs Seek to Add to Current Total of 17 Life-Saving Donor Matches
NEW HAVEN, Conn. – By the time Thursday's Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale took place, the previous four annual drives had already added more than 3,000 people to the Be The Match Registry® and identified at least 17 donor matches for patients with life-threatening illnesses. The three Yale teams that organize the drive each year -- field hockey, football and women's ice hockey -- had a high standard to live up to in order to keep saving lives at such a rapid pace.
In the end, they were up to the challenge. Months of work leading up to the drive paid off with another huge number of registrants: 843, the most for any drive of its kind in the country this year.
With the new additions to the registry from Thursday, there is no doubt that the number of lives saved through Yale's efforts in memory of Mandi will continue to grow well beyond 17 -- a number that happens to match her uniform number. Each registrant remains in the registry until the age of 61. Many of those who signed up on Thursday could be called to donate any time in the next 40 or more years.
A member of the Yale women's ice hockey team and the Class of 2010, Mandi was initially diagnosed with cancer (acute myeloid leukemia) in December of 2008. She inspired people to sign up as potential marrow donors throughout the U.S. -- and in her native Canada and beyond -- in an effort to save her life. However, she was never able to find a perfect marrow donor match. In September 2010 she had a stem cell transplant (designed to give her a new immune system to help beat the cancer) 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 at the age of 23.
Yale's drives in Mandi's memory are part of the "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program, which started in 1992 at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley. The program, involving dozens of football 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 New Haven.
Driven by Mandi's teammates and fellow Bulldogs, Yale's drives have posted remarkable numbers ever since the first one in 2009 yielded more than 700 registrants. The record up until that point had been 630.
The Bulldogs eventually shattered their own mark with 921 registrants in 2010, a feat which belies the challenge for any group that attempts to have an annual drive in the same location. While the process is simple for registrants -- paperwork and cheek swabs that take approximately 15 minutes -- the difficulty level for drive organizers grows every 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.
This year the Bulldogs had some extra incentive to post a big number. Besides saving more lives, they wanted to register more potential donors than any other school in the country -- an achievement that had eluded them for the first time last year, when their total of 515 was second to Villanova. In each of the three years prior to that, Yale had led the nation in new registrants.
A friendly rivalry has emerged between the two schools, and this year Villanova held its drive first -- on Apr. 9. The Wildcats got 535 registrants, giving the Bulldogs something to shoot for.
Yale passed the 535 mark shortly before 3:00 Thursday, and just kept going. The 843rd and final registrant came through at 4:30 p.m., a half-hour after the drive was initially scheduled to end.
The Bulldogs' success can be attributed in part to a series of new ideas implemented this year. Their work really began in earnest the night before the drive, when they debuted a "Study Break" on Old Campus featuring music and free pizza that drew a crowd and helped raise awareness of the drive. A campaign on Facebook also helped spread the word, and supplemented a series of e-mails to various groups within the Yale community. This year, the New Haven County Medical Association also assisted with the drive.
Those efforts were supplemented by some of traditional tactics -- including appearances by Boola, Yale's costumed mascot, and Handsome Dan, Yale's traditional mascot -- to add up to another successful drive.
The Be The Match representatives who helped run the drive on Thursday appreciated the level of teamwork on display.
"To be able to work with an institution like Yale is a privilege in and of itself, let alone to be able to see how great these people are -- students and faculty -- at getting a message out, working together and doing so much to help save so many lives," said Be The Match's Eric St. Peter. "It is really just an incredible thing to be a part of."
Getting large numbers of people to show up is only the first step in the process; getting those people to become donors is the ultimate goal. In that regard, the Bulldogs have been blessed with multiple role models. Lexy Adams, a senior on the field hockey team, was identified as a match and donated to a patient in need during her sophomore year. John Oppenheimer, a junior on the football team, just donated this past January. Both are now part of Yale's group of 17 donors. On Thursday they stationed themselves prominently near the drive spot, Commons, in order to help convince others to join the registry.
Adams and Oppenheimer were part of a group of dozens of volunteers helping to guide as many people as possible through the process.
"I've never seen such a consistent commitment level," said Be The Match's Heather LaCasse. "Every year, the commitment and the accountability is still there, along with the dedication in honor of Mandi and to the entire mission in general. Seventeen donors in four years is amazing. That just speaks to the success -- not only are we adding so many, but we are getting committed, quality donors."
The Bulldogs owe a large part of their success to the dedication that Mandi inspired in her teammates. The current senior class on the women's ice hockey team is the last class that had the chance to practice with her -- she re-joined the team briefly in the spring of 2010 before relapsing. Keeping her memory alive is a duty that will get passed on from one generation to another, and each drive is a chance to tell more people about the type of person that she was.
"Mandi is my hero, and always will be my hero," said Patricia McGauley, a junior women's ice hockey player. "I could say it a billion times -- 'This person's a great person'. It's easy to say that. But Mandi literally always did the right thing. How do you get that across to people?"
On Thursday McGauley wore her "Team Mandilion" t-shirt, with Mandi's uniform number emblazoned on the back along with six brief words from Athol Murray College of Notre Dame -- where the two both went to school prior to coming to Yale.
"That's our school motto, but it was so much of her -- Never Lose Heart. Struggle and Emerge."
With nearly 4,000 registrants now added to the Be The Match Registry® through the drives at Yale in her memory, Mandi will continue to be an inspiration -- and her story will help save the lives of others who face similar battles.
"Our goal is that every patient who needs a transplant gets one and survives," said St. Peter. "When they don't, like in the case of Mandi … her life has left such a legacy for so many people. Mandi's legacy is 4,000 more chances and countless more lives that will be saved."
The Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive is part of the Yale Day of Service. Visit http://www.yaledayofservice.org/ for more information.
Report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity