Match found, miracle needed

Jim Owen wandered into last year’s bone marrow drive no different than any of the 703 other participants — prepared to fill out paperwork and give a cheek swab. But Owen was one of only two donors who received a phone call a month later.

He was a match.

Jim Owen, who works in ITS, prepares to donate his bone marrow.
Jim Owen
Jim Owen, who works in ITS, prepares to donate his bone marrow.
Mandi Schwartz ’11 needs a donor in her fight against leukemia.
Eva Galvan
Mandi Schwartz ’11 needs a donor in her fight against leukemia.

“I was shocked when they called me,” said Owen, a 59-year-old backup and storage administrator for Yale’s Information Technology Services. “The likelihood that anyone would get called is infinitesimal.”

The Yale-hosted drive, a second of which will be held today, sought a perfect match for cancer patients, particularly Mandi Schwartz ’11, a women’s hockey forward struggling with leukemia. After that first test, Owen had several rounds of screening and, ultimately, a stem cell transfusion in order to save the life of a cancer patient he would never meet.

But Schwartz is still waiting for a similar stroke of luck — and she needs it now more than ever.

SERENDIPITY

Owen’s road to becoming a donor was, by all accounts, serendipitous. When last year’s event rolled around, the technician was 19 months away from his 60th birthday — the upper threshold for completing a screening.

He had heard about the drive — hosted by the Yale football and women’s ice hockey teams — as part of the “Get in the Game, Save a Life” campaign, which aims to find blood and bone marrow donors to help cancer patients. And he had heard about Schwartz.

She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008. At the time of the drive, she was in the middle of a 130-day hospitalization.

“When I heard that Mandi had leukemia, I thought about my boys and about my wife who was also being treated for breast cancer, and then I thought, you know, this can’t be so bad,” Owen said. “So I decided to do it.”

But when Owen encouraged some of his colleagues to participate, he was confronted with a decided lack of interest.

“I’ve heard all along that bone marrow transplant is this terrible ordeal, and it puts fear into people,” Owen said.

Today, most donors give stem cells through a simple blood transfusion. One in five is asked to give a bone marrow donation, which involves an anesthetic to numb any pain, Schwartz wrote in an e-mail to Yale students encouraging them to participate in this year’s drive from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today in Commons.

Owen fell into the first group. He donated blood for a second round of tests, and four weeks later, a National Marrow Donor Program representative told Owen he was almost certainly a match.

On Aug. 20, Owen traveled to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York to have a thorough physical exam. After the screening, he got the green light. The next month, Owen and his wife returned to Columbia Presbyterian for his stem-cell donation, which took six hours. And then it was done.

‘I NEED A DONOR’

Owen was later told his donation had gone to help a 69-year-old woman in another country. No more information was available since it was an international donation, Owen said, adding that the woman is likely a distant relative, as the odds of finding a non-genetically based match are a million to one.

While that 69-year-old woman found a lucky star in Owen, Schwartz did not have the same success. She is still searching for a perfect match.

That search escalated from pressing to critical when Schwartz, whose leukemia was in remission for the past 11 months, learned Monday that her cancer has returned.

She said she hopes as many students as possible will participate in today’s drive.

“It’s so important to me because in order to save my life, I need a donor,” said Schwartz, who leaves this morning for Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, for treatment. “It is a very important and selfless thing to do because you can honestly save someone’s life. It’s so easy to do, and so important for patients with life-threatening diseases.”

Diagnosed with leukemia in December 2008, Schwartz underwent five rounds of chemotherapy and roughly five months of hospitalization before finally returning to Yale with a clean bill of health this past January. That second week in January, she stepped into Ingalls Rink for her first Yale hockey practice in 13 months.

Schwartz, who entered Yale in the class of 2009, attended one semester of classes at the University of Saskatchewan after being released from the hospital and is on track to graduate from Yale with the class of 2011. She red-shirted the 2009-’10 season (practicing but not competing with the team) and has planned to use her last season of eligibility to compete next year.

But with Monday’s news, all of that could change.

After returning to Saskatchewan, Schwartz will head to Seattle for additional treatment. Without a perfect donor, her two options are to have a blood-cord transplant or use an imperfect match.

Caroline Murphy ’10, the women’s hockey captain, said Schwartz currently has a “nine out of 10 match.” The pairing is risky enough that doctors did not attempt it last time. But if no other match emerges, such a treatment might have to do.

“Obviously this is a shock and obviously disappointing and something we were praying wouldn’t happen,” head women’s hockey coach Hilary Witt said. “For us, it’s hit close to home and it’s incredibly scary.”

A SECOND CHANCE

Murphy said many people she knows have a misconception that stem cell donations are highly painful processes. But both Owen and Murphy said that idea is wrong.

“I’ve talked to people that have done it before, and you’re sore for a day — sore as if you’d worked out hard — and then you’re fine, and it saves someone’s life,” Murphy said. “A bone marrow transplant is a last-ditch effort. And if it doesn’t work, then it’s game over.”

Owen, for his part, said he experienced minimal pain during the screenings and when performing the actual donation. While donors can opt out at any point, Owen said he never thought of backing down after discovering he was a match. Considering the benefits to a patient, the inconveniences for a donor are trivial, Owen said.

Lawrence Ciotti, the assistant football coach and one of the drive’s three organizers, said the hope is to bring in another 1,000 participants at this year’s event. The entire process takes about 15 minutes, he said, and while all Yalies should participate, it is especially important for freshmen to register, because they are not in the donor system.

As for Schwartz and the rest of the women’s hockey team, Witt said they are trying to stay positive and remain faithful that Schwartz will recover. And Murphy said that is where the Yale community really comes into play — by going to the drive around lunchtime in Commons, taking the cheek swab, and getting screened to donate.

“Mandi is going to fight as much as she can,” Murphy said. “She’s a fighter. She’s meticulous about her health. She’s going to do her part for this, and we need to help her out.”

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