Schwartz’s ’11 battle leaves lasting impact

Women’s hockey player Mandi Schwartz ’11 succumbed to cancer Sunday morning, but her legacy lives on in the efforts she inspired — efforts that have helped cancer patients worldwide and will continue to expand in the future.

When Schwartz was first diagnosed with cancer in late 2008, the members of the women’s hockey team rallied to her cause, organizing fundraisers and alerting the national media to their teammate’s story. Though these initiatives could not save Schwartz, they ultimately aided cancer patients across North America. The two bone marrow drives the team held on campus added more than 1600 people to the national “Be the Match” registry and found five donor matches, said Larry Ciotti, a long-time assistant coach for the Yale football team and one of the drive’s organizers.

“It’s heartbreaking that Mandi didn’t personally benefit, but I know how proud she was of us and our efforts,” Aleca Hughes ’12, a teammate of Schwartz’s, said Monday. “[She was] honored that everything that’s been done on her behalf has helped other people.”

Hughes was a consistent leader of those efforts, and as a result was named a finalist for the 2011 Hockey Humanitarian Award — an accolade granted each year to one college player — in February. Over the course of Schwartz’s 27-month-long battle with cancer, her teammates, family and friends raised tens of thousands of dollars for her cause.

Schwartz’s supporters held events across the U.S. and her native Canada and enlisted thousands of people in their efforts. Her Yale teammates sponsored two record-setting bone marrow drives on campus, which have now become an annual event named in her honor. They biked hundreds of miles across the country, held charity hockey tournaments, and packed white-clad fans into Ingalls Rink on her behalf. They rallied to Schwartz’s cause, and mobilized support for cancer sufferers everywhere.

Though the bone marrow drives did not produce a life-saving marrow or stem cell donor for Schwartz, they found five perfect matches for other cancer patients.

Jim Owen, a system programmer for Yale’s Information Technology Services, was one of those matches. Owen said he never met Schwartz, never saw her play hockey, and knew of her only through media coverage. But he said he felt close enough to her to attend the first Yale drive in 2009, adding that Schwartz was the same age as his youngest son, also a hockey player.

“It doesn’t matter who she was,” Owen said. “She needed somebody to help save her life, and it’s an easy thing for anybody to do. You just have to hope the person who can save the next Mandi has already registered.”

The hundreds of volunteers who joined Owen in signing up for the registry have set national participation records for the past two years, Ciotti said. The drive in April 2010 drew 943 people to Commons, he added.

Chris Mulcahy, a New England account executive for the Be the Match National Marrow Donor Program, could not confirm that the drives set records, but said that they “dwarfed” any other effort he has seen.

“A significant number of people have contacted me because they were aware of Mandi’s situation and wanted to do drives in the New Haven area and beyond,” Mulcahy said. “I have no doubt that Mandi spurred a lot of people both here and in Canada to join their registries, even if it wasn’t all at once.”

Turnout to the bone marrow drives was so large in part because Schwartz’s story spread far beyond the athletic community.

“I remember in the lab this year my lab partner was like, ‘Oh, how’s your teammate doing?’ and I was so taken aback,” recalled Schwartz’s teammate Jackee Snikeris ’11. While there is no strict divide between the athletic and non-athletic communities, Snikeris said, “there is something” that typically separates them.

Efforts to help Schwartz reached their peak in the summer of 2010, but continued with several widely attended events this fall. Yale and Quinnipiac held a fundraiser called “Mandi’s March” in early November 2010, in which Schwartz’s supporters walked 7.5 miles between the two schools’ hockey rinks and raised more than $4,000 for Schwartz and her family. One week later, the Eli team sold white T-shirts emblazoned with Schwartz’s number 17, drew a record crowd of 1,066 to Ingalls Rink, and raised more than $15,000 in a “White Out for Mandi.”

That same night, the women’s swimming and diving team painted Schwartz’s number on their shoulders for a home meet in a show of support.

The swimmers were not the only Yale athletes to involve themselves in Schwartz’s cause. Women’s golf played 100 holes of golf in her honor in March, and the football and field hockey teams will join women’s hockey in hosting an upcoming bone marrow drive in three weeks.

Schwartz still appears on the hockey team’s 24-person team roster — listed as a senior forward, number 17. All members of the squad sport Schwartz’s number on the back of their helmets, teammate Bray Ketchum ’11 said in October 2010, and a dedication to her also remains in Ingalls Rink.

“When you walk out of our locker room, it says ‘You will never walk alone’ on the back of the door with [Mandi’s] number on the bottom,” Ketchum said. “We’re always thinking about her when we enter the rink and when we leave.”

Bone marrow registry efforts will continue on campus with the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registry Drive, which will be held on April 21.

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