In the Search for Life-Saving Donors, These Bulldogs Speak from Experience

Yale soccer player Mitch Wagner recently donated marrow to a patient with a life-threatening illness.
Yale soccer player Mitch Wagner recently donated marrow to a patient with a life-threatening illness.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – It was the summer of 2012, and Chris Gennaro was about to start his new job as a member of the football staff at Yale. First, though, he had to contact Tony Reno, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football, with a special request. Gennaro had just found out from Be The Match® that he was a genetic match for a patient with a life-threatening illness in need of a marrow transplant. Gennaro would have to donate soon, and he wanted to check with his new boss before proceeding.

"I told [Be The Match®] I wasn't too sure if I was able to do it, because I was about to start a new job and would have to talk to my boss [about potentially having to take time off from work]," said Gennaro. "I called Coach Reno and he said 'Absolutely. Absolutely do it.' He said Coach Ciotti would be very excited when he found out."

For those who have been around the Bulldogs recently, Reno's complete and rapid support for his new employee and the marrow donation process was not surprising. The value of marrow donation has been well-known in the Yale Athletic Department for years -- the Bulldogs have held an annual marrow donor registration drive every spring since 2009. The drives began shortly after women's ice hockey player Mandi Schwartz '10 (1988-2011) was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2008, and they were named in her memory after she passed away.

The "Coach Ciotti" that Reno referred to is Larry Ciotti, the assistant football coach who organizes the drives. In 2009, the Yale football team joined the national "Get in the game. Save a life." campaign and began working with the women's ice hockey team to lead the drive (the field hockey team has since joined in to lead as well). Since then, the drives at Yale have broken records, adding nearly 4,000 potential donors to the Be The Match Registry®. Donors that could help save lives join through testing that consists of simple cheek swabs.

What Gennaro could not have known that summer was that he was about to have some company in the growing community of marrow donors at Yale -- very close company. Later the following year, two of his co-workers on the Yale staff -- who also happen to be Gennaro's roommates -- would go on to donate marrow as well. Paul Rice '10 and Zach Wigmore donated within a few weeks of each other at the end of 2013, giving Yale three marrow-donating roommates on the football staff.

"What are the odds of that?" Gennaro asked. "All in the same apartment? Not just the odds of three people working together and donating, but three people living together and donating? It's crazy."

Gennaro joined the registry at a "Get in the Game. Save a Life." campaign event while he was a kicker/punter on the football team at the University of Maine. Rice, a linebacker and defensive back, joined in 2009 at Yale, where joining the registry is just part of what the members of the teams leading the drive do. They also help promote the drive in advance and volunteer their time on drive day to raise awareness of the need for marrow donors and help people with the registration process.

"I was politely bothering people at Commons (Yale's main dining hall)," Rice said with a smile as he recalled his volunteer role at previous drives. "I was walking around with [Bulldog mascot] Handsome Dan trying to get as many people as I could interested and involved."

Wigmore, who joined the registry as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the winter of 2009-10, joined the Yale staff this past summer and moved in with Gennaro and Rice in New Haven. He was unaware of his roommate's life-saving past until he himself got a phone call from Be The Match® notifying him that he was a match.

"At one of my first staff meetings, I heard that one of the community service projects that the guys do is a marrow donor registration drive," Wigmore said. "As soon as I found out I was a match, I told people around here, and Chris said 'Oh, I did that.'."

The "Get in the Game. Save a Life." program started in 1992 at Villanova under the guidance of head football coach Andy Talley. The program involves dozens of college athletic teams organizing drives on their campuses. Ciotti is a friend of Talley's and brought the idea to Yale. In each of the years from 2009 to 2011, Yale registered more potential donors than any other school in the program. That included 704 registrants in 2009, 921 in 2010 and 869 in 2011. Yale also led the nation in registrants last year with 843.

"Here at Yale there is so much support from all the different teams," said Gennaro. "And we have Coach Ciotti. At Maine, we got a lot of people that registered, but we didn't have Coach Ciotti. He is very passionate about it, and so are a lot of people here. That makes a difference."

Mandi's story has been one of the driving forces behind the success of the Yale drives. In September 2010 she required a marrow transplant, performed at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, that was designed to give her a new immune system 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.

Rice, who helped the football team to an Ivy League championship in 2006 and captained the team as a senior, spoke of how the enthusiasm shown by all the teams involved helps make the drive successful.

"I firmly believe that everyone wants to see you be successful at Yale, at whatever you want to do," said Rice. "When a group of motivated people show this much enthusiasm about a certain cause or an event, it translates into what we've seen the past few years, which is very big numbers and a lot of people getting helped."

Gennaro wound up missing only one practice for his donation, and Rice and Wigmore both made their donations in the offseason. For Rice, the donation day had special meaning because his grandfather had just passed away. Rice attended the funeral after donating earlier that morning.

"It was a unique position to be in -- your grandfather passed away, so you celebrate his life, and you also get a chance to donate and help someone else out," Rice said.

Rice made his donation at the same location where a member of Yale's football team -- senior center John Oppenheimer -- had donated earlier that year (twice, to the same patient).

"They knew 'Oppy' there; they remembered him," Rice said, laughing at the notion of becoming well-known at a blood center.

While the number of registrants from Yale is impressive, the number that matters most is the number of donor matches found -- and to date, the drives inspired by Mandi have generated at least 23 of those. While no official records are available (drive organizers only find out about donor matches through word-of-mouth), Oppenheimer is believed to be the first Bulldog football player to donate after registering at one of Yale's drives. Student-athletes from other teams have also been donors; field hockey player Lexy Adams '13 was among the first donors from a Yale drive, and she has volunteered at every drive since (she is currently an assistant coach at Yale, getting her master's degree in public health).

Two other Bulldogs are among the more recent donor matches from Yale.

One is Michele Fiorentino '10, a former Yale women's lacrosse player. A native of Berwyn, Pa., Fiorentino was a part of the Bulldogs' run to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, when the team went 13-4. She was a second team All-Ivy League selection and earned the Bowditch Award as team MVP in 2010, when she led the team in caused turnovers.

While those accomplishments are impressive, Fiorentino may have made her biggest impact while at Yale simply by taking a few minutes of her time to swab her cheeks and join the Be The Match Registry®.

"It was going on in Commons and it seemed like everyone was signing up, so I registered. I never actually thought I was going to be a match," Fiorentino said.

Fiorentino, who graduated from Yale with a degree in biology, eventually headed off to medical school at Drexel.

Then, early last summer, she received a letter saying that she was a potential match. That letter included a short survey; after she filled that out, she got an e-mail requesting further information.

After a blood test a month later, it was determined that Fiorentino was the best match for the patient in need. To protect the privacy of those involved, she was only told the recipient's age, gender, country and disease. Her recipient was a male who lives overseas and had acute myeloid leukemia -- the same form of cancer that Mandi had. Fiorentino's donation date was then scheduled for late summer.

"When I was first contacted I was nervous since I wasn't sure what the process involved," said Fiorentino. "I talked to my family and then a bunch of my friends from Yale who also joined the registry. I started asking around if any of them had been contacted or been through the process. The actual donation process was so much easier than I thought. Before the donation I got shots for five days to stimulate my stem cells. They made me a little sore but no worse than I was from workouts in college."

Fiorentino, a defender who missed just three games in her career, then experienced first-hand how easy the final part of the donation process was. Adults may be asked to donate one of two ways. About 75 percent of the time, a patient's doctor requests a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation, a non-surgical, outpatient procedure similar to donating platelets or plasma. About 25 percent of the time, a patient's doctor requests marrow, a surgical, outpatient procedure that takes place at a hospital. General or regional anesthesia is always used. Individuals who sign up as members of the Be The Match Registry must be willing to donate by either method, based on what the physician decides is best for the patient.

"The day of the donation I arrived at the hospital and was hooked up to the plasmapheresis machine for about six hours," said Fiorentino, who donated using the PBSC process. "I was able to watch TV, read and eat while I was hooked up to the machine. That night I was pretty exhausted but by the next day I was fine and able to go to work.  I was so pleasantly surprised with how easy it was." 

One of the most recent additions to Yale's family of donor matches is men's soccer player Mitch Wagner. Wagner, a sophomore forward from Horseheads, N.Y., joined the Be The Match Registry® at the drive last year. He credits his friend Stephen Buric, a sophomore tight end on the football team, with encouraging him to join. Within months of joining, Wagner got a voicemail notifying him that he was a potential match for a patient in need.

"At the time, I still did not fully understand what this entailed or how rare finding a donor was," Wagner said. "I then brought it up to my suitemates who told me to call back immediately.  The first step in the process was getting my blood work done at Yale Health and, after a week or so, the nurse called and let me know that I was the best match."  

Like all of his fellow donors, Wagner then had a choice to make -- and for him, it was an easy choice.

"After they determined that I was the best match for the patient, the nurse asked me if I wanted to go through with the process and told me that I could take a few days to think about it," Wagner said. "I responded yes without hesitation, knowing that my parents would fully support my decision.  I realized that I was blessed with the opportunity to save someone's life.  You think about how excited his family and friends would be when hearing that a match was found.  The whole experience really made me appreciate how lucky I am, and it felt good to give back."

With the next Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale coming up this Thursday, all of Yale's donor matches serve as a reminder of the significance of what can be accomplished on that day. While none of them sought out any public recognition for donating, they all know that their stories will hopefully encourage many others to join the Be The Match Registry®.

"You feel very fulfilled," said Rice when asked what it felt like to make a donation. "You feel like you've done something altruistic, and you have. It's something to be proud of. If you have an opportunity like this you should do it. It is clearly helping someone else get another day, week, month or more with their loved ones. It's a unique feeling."


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

  • Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014
  • 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 Be The Match Registry®, must be ages 18 to 44 to join in person)
  • No advance registration required
  • 1-800-MARROW-2