Time is ticking to find a donor for Mandi Schwartz ’11, the women’s hockey forward who has battled leukemia on and off for nearly 18 months. As the search becomes increasingly critical, efforts to find Schwartz a matching marrow or cord blood donor have intensified.
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“It’s pretty urgent right now,” head women’s hockey coach Hilary Witt said. “Mandi’s staying tough and doing the best she can, but it’s quite a battle for her. She’s staying as strong as she can, and she’s an inspiration to all of us.”
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008, Schwartz underwent a 130-day hospitalization stint and was finally released with a clean bill of health in May 2009. But after spending 11 months with her cancer in remission, Schwartz learned on April 19 that her leukemia had returned.
Schwartz flew to Saskatchewan, Canada, on April 22 to begin chemotherapy for the second time. The 22-year old has completed two or three more rounds of chemotherapy since then and was officially declared in remission on June 2, New Haven-based clinical immunologist Dr. Tedd Collins said in an interview Friday.
Schwartz will now head to Seattle by car — her immune system is too weak to risk boarding a plane — where she will prepare to have a transplant. The procedure will likely occur in mid-July at the soonest, Collins said.
But the crucial donor is still missing.
“There’s good news and bad news,” Collins said. “The good news is that there is no cancer present; [Mandi] is in remission and can move in and have a transplant. The bad news is that we’ve lost a month… Instead of having 60 days to find a donor, we now have 30 to 45.”
With the clock ticking on the imperative donor search, efforts to locate a bone marrow or cord blood match for Schwartz have expanded across Canada and the United States. Schwartz is most likely to locate a match in someone of German, Russian or Ukrainian ancestry because of her own heritage.
Former Yale men’s hockey player Brennan Turner ’09 is leading efforts in Canada. Turner, who attended the same high school as Schwartz, has organized a series of bone marrow donor testing drives through CBC’s “Play On!” four-on-four street hockey tournament, which takes places in nine major Canadian cities throughout the summer.
Turner has set up drives in eight of the nine locations. He said nearly 200 people joined the registry during the first drive on May 29–30, which was held in Winnipeg.
“Basically I just kind of took the reigns in Canada trying to get a bunch of bone marrow drives set up,” Turner said.
In addition to lining up drives, Turner is working with others from his high school and college communities to visit hospitals and encourage expectant mothers to sign up as cord blood donors.
Schwartz currently has a “nine out of 10” bone marrow donor, but the pairing is risky enough that doctors did not attempt it before. Transplants with less than perfect bone marrow cell matches frequently lead to fatal graft versus host (GVH) responses.
The risk of such a response is far lower with a cord blood donation, Collins said. Schwartz needs cord blood donations from two adults, he said, but they could be “nine out of 10” or “10 out of 10” matches.
”One will grow and one will not,” he said. “One will engraft, the other will act as a facilitator to kind of feed it, and then it disappears.”
Collins also noted that cord blood donations are safe for both mothers and their babies.
“The cord blood is the blood that’s left in the umbilical cord after the baby is born, so it’s not connected to either the baby or the mother,” he said. “It’s not at all harmful or painful to either the mother or the child. If the umbilical cord is not saved or not donated, then it’s simply thrown in the garbage.”
Collins is the founder of Become My Hero, an organization that works to find cord blood donors for patients in remission or immediate danger of death. He created a group on Facebook called “Become Mandi’s Hero,” which has more than 3,400 members. He said between 50 and 100 women have currently enrolled as cord blood donors for Schwartz, with several already delivering.
After a Yale-hosted bone marrow drive registered more than 900 in April, Director of Athletics Tom Beckett also sent an e-mail to the Yale community on June 2 asking for help finding potential donors.
Coverage from numerous media outlets has helped to publicize Schwartz’s cause, with written reports from CBC News, AOL FanHouse and News Channel 8 WTNH, in addition to several appearances on News Channel 8.
“I think the most important thing is for anyone who reads any kind of article to spread the word to anyone they know,” hockey coach Witt said. “I think the more information people have, the better chance we have of finding somebody who’s a match.”
And according to Collins, that match needs to be found now.
“This is it — if we don’t do it now, we cannot do it later,” he said. “If people just help us by giving us two hours of their time, they can save Mandi’s life. That’s all we need.”