Forward Mandi Schwartz ’11 stepped into Ingalls Rink on Monday — armed with her hockey pads, stick and a clean bill of health — all geared up for the day’s demanding conditioning workout with the rest of her teammates. It was her first Yale hockey practice in 13 months.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008, Schwartz returned to the ice this week after five rounds of chemotherapy and roughly five months of hospitalization — the ultimate comeback after overcoming her cancer.
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“It’s just amazing to be honest,” coach Hilary Witt said. “We always had faith that she’d fight this and get back here, but to do it in such a quick amount of time is incredible.”
The road back to Yale and the women’s hockey team has been a long one for Schwartz, who only returned to campus this past Friday. The Saskatchewan, Canada native has played hockey since age 7 and, aside from one time when she tore her ACL as a high school student, has never passed a significant stretch of time without the sport. She was heavily recruited for Yale’s squad, was named an ECAC All-Academic in each of her first two seasons and had a streak of 62 consecutive games played in her two-plus seasons on the ice.
But all that changed on Dec. 8, 2008.
Schwartz had felt ill for weeks before the fateful day of her diagnosis, but she mostly chalked it up to routine school exhaustion and the everyday wear-and-tear of varsity athletics.
“I was sick all semester, and I didn’t know why,” Schwartz said. “I thought I was anemic or something … I just felt really weird, and I didn’t know what it was — just infection and illnesses all the time. Toward the end, my body got really sore, and I thought it was just from working out.”
Her teammates could tell something was wrong as Schwartz — normally the most energetic, cheery and hard-working member of the team — began to appear more and more fatigued at practice and in games.
“Something was wrong with Mandi because, first off, when we were freshmen, the upperclassmen used to make fun of her for ‘warming up’ because she would do that forever and always had so much energy,” captain Caroline Murphy ’10 said. “Then she did not anymore. She stopped warming up, would leave immediately after practice, when usually she stuck around for at least an additional 45 minutes. She stopped doing all the little things that were so characteristic of Mandi.”
Then came the Dec. 4 game against Brown. If the team had before only suspected something more serious was wrong with Schwartz, that contest left the squad with no doubts.
Yale beat the Bears easily, 4–1, but Schwartz struggled all game — not chasing the puck, barely moving on the ice and crying with frustration in between periods.
Murphy said she asked her teammate what was going on and got the same explanation Schwartz had been repeating for weeks: “I get exhausted after 20 seconds, I just can’t breathe, and my legs are burning.”
The next day Schwartz went to the Department of Undergraduate Health to have her blood checked. At dinner with Murphy and a few others on Sunday, Schwartz was relieved — the results had come back, she said, and she had tested positive for anemia. It was finally an explanation for her perpetual fatigue and illness. Schwartz added that she was going to meet with another doctor again the following Monday — Dec. 8 — in Hamden, and would let her teammates know how it went.
At 10 a.m. that Monday, Schwartz found out she had leukemia. Everything stopped. She returned to campus and started packing. Her plane back to Canada was leaving the next day, before Schwartz’s immune system would become too weak for her to travel. The team found out at Monday’s practice.
“They told us, there were tears and whatever, and then everyone collected themselves — we didn’t practice obviously — and went back to Mandi’s room to help her pack,” Murphy said. “The next morning the team came and had breakfast in her room at 7 a.m. and she left at 8 a.m., and that was the last time we saw her for a year and a month.”
Witt flew to Canada along with Schwartz, who was hospitalized on Dec. 10, to keep her player company and make sure Schwartz arrived safely.
During the next few months, Schwartz completed five rounds of chemotherapy and had six bone marrow biopsies, three spinal taps, countless blood and platelet transfusions, and even a few allergic reactions to those platelets. She was allowed to spend five to seven days at home after each chemotherapy treatment, when her immune system was at its peak.
Schwartz’s 130-day hospitalization was a long stretch of sleeping, reading, television and visitors. Her family would frequently sleep over in the hospital and her boyfriend visited every weekend.
“I was room-ridden — my immune system was so low while I was in the hospital that I couldn’t leave my room for any reason,” Schwartz said. “It really bothered me being in my room all the time and not being able to leave. It was like quarantine from the world.”
Back at Yale, the women’s hockey team had also rallied for Schwartz’s cause. They joined with the football team in April of this year to host a marrow donor testing drive at Commons as part of the “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” program that drew more than 700 participants. Schwartz received countless e-mails, texts and letters from her friends and the Yale community. The women’s crew team even made her a hand-stitched blanket.
“Yale University is one of the most caring communities I have ever experienced,” Director of Athletics Thomas Beckett said. “People in this community will do anything and everything they can to assist someone in need. The people here are simply amazing.”
Schwartz did her best to keep active in the hospital, using a yoga mat to complete core exercises and skating during her brief breaks at home. She also used Web site CaringBridge to keep people updated on her progress.
After a clean blood test, Schwartz was finally released on May 17. She still is monitored regularly — with a blood test each month and bone marrow biopsies every three months — but has been given a clean bill of health..
Schwartz, who entered Yale in the class of 2009, attended one semester of classes at the University of Saskatchewan after being released, and she is now on track to graduate from Yale with the class of 2011. She has red-shirted the 2009-’10 season — practicing but not competing with the team — and will use her last season of eligibility to compete next year.
“The hope of coming back kept me going,” Schwartz said. “I knew I could fight through it, and everyone around me was telling me that I could do it, so I didn’t really have a choice to think otherwise.”
Since Schwartz left Yale in December 2008, all the members of her team have worn a sticker with the number 17 — Schwartz’s jersey number — on their helmets as a tribute to their absent teammate. But this past Monday, those stickers finally came off.
“When Mandi came back, our coach called us into the locker room,” forward Berit Johnson ’10 recalled. “She said, ‘You can take those off now — we have the real thing back.’ ”