Oppenheimer ’14 leads by example in marrow drive

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Photo by Maria Zepeda.

John Oppenheimer ’14, an offensive lineman on the football team, never expected to be a perfect match when he joined the bone marrow registry. But when he discovered that he had the opportunity to save a life, Oppenheimer did not hesitate to donate.

The senior said that he joined the registry in the spring of 2011, his freshman year, after drawing inspiration from the story of former women’s hockey player Mandi Schwartz ’10. A year and a half later, Oppenheimer got a call that he was a match.

Schwartz competed as a center for the Bulldog squad, and she played in 73 straight games for Yale before she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008. She passed away in April 2011, but not before the first Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive was held at Yale in her honor in April 2009. The sixth iteration of the drive is occurring in Commons today.

“Although [Schwartz] lost her fight with cancer, her legacy has left such an impact as the drive in her honor has added over 3,800 to the registry and saved 23 lives,” Oppenheimer said. “And I had no idea how easy it was to join the registry, and painless it is to save a life if a perfect match.”

The demand for donors is great in the United States, where approximately 20,000 people need a bone marrow transplant each year. But only 30 percent of those looking for donors find genetic matches in their own family, and therefore many rely on the thousands that register at marrow donor drives like the one held every spring at Yale.

Oppenheimer is one of many football players who have played a role in the success of the drive each year. The football team, in conjunction with the women’s ice hockey team and field hockey team, leads the efforts for the bone marrow registry drive by organizing and publicizing the event.

“In preparation for the drive, all three of the teams came together to package over 1,000 ‘swab kits,’ and in the days leading up to the drive [each player recruits] at least five students who have not been registered to come on the day of the drive,” said tight end Keith Coty ’14.

Coty adds that the teams also scatter around campus to hand out flyers and direct people towards Commons. The teams not only publicize the drive, but they also process the incoming registrations and facilitate the operations of the event.

Quarterback Henry Furman ’15 said that the teams use their large numbers to help spread awareness through social media and word of mouth.

“I think any time we can see our commitment and camaraderie manifested in something other than football, it’s inspiring for all of us,” Furman said.

As a result of the efforts of Yale athletics, thousands have joined the registry. Few, however, are perfect matches for those in need of bone marrow.

In the fall of his junior year, Oppenheimer received an unexpected call from Be the Match, the national bone marrow registry.

“I was absolutely shocked when I was notified that I was a perfect match for a man in need of a donation,” Oppenheimer said. “The odds of being a perfect match are 1 in 500, so I never expected to be a match.”

After finding out that he was a match, Oppenheimer said that it was a no-brainer to decide to donate bone marrow.

The spring of his junior year, Oppenheimer went through with the process, donating the stem cells in his blood.

“It was such a small sacrifice on my end to literally save a man’s life,” Oppenheimer said. “It would only take me five hours to save a 41 year old man’s life. Plus, I only had to donate bone marrow through blood, so it was very painless.”

Oppenheimer’s donation really hit home for the team, which has been involved in the drive for the past seven years.

It was an exciting moment when a football player finally became a match, and since Oppenheimer’s donation, two coaches have also been donors.

“The team takes pride in getting huge numbers of people to donate, while knowing that only a small percentage of them would have the opportunity to do so,” defensive tackle Kyle White ’14 said. “So naturally, when we found out that Oppy was a match, we were all very excited for him.”

Furman added that Oppenheimer was excited about the opportunity to donate and that the enthusiasm from a senior leader bolstered the team’s belief in their efforts.

According to Coty, having donors from the squad and coaching staff has given the team more motivation to continue to increase the numbers that go into the registry each year.

“John’s story gave everyone the realization that a simple cheek swab could have a substantive impact on someone’s life,” Coty said.

Oppenheimer said that this year, the teams hope to add another thousand people to the registry. Although the goal becomes harder each year as a majority of students on campus have registered, the teams have attempted to increase graduate school and faculty participation.

The Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive, part of the nationwide “Get in the Game. Save a Life.” campaign for Be the Match, will be held in Commons today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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