As Mandi Schwartz’s ’11 battle with leukemia continues to inspire supporters across the country, the spotlight has also fallen on one of her teammates.
Fellow women’s hockey forward Aleca Hughes ’12, a leader in raising awareness for Mandi’s cause, has been named a finalist for the 2011 Hockey Humanitarian Award — an accolade granted each year to one Division I or Division III player. Hughes and her teammates have rallied around Schwartz since her diagnosis in December 2008, organizing fundraisers and bone marrow drives. But efforts that have benefited cancer patients nationwide have remained unable to cure Mandi’s disease.
THE FORWARD AT HOME: SCHWARTZ’S CARE
Since Mandi Schwartz was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in December 2008, Hughes, the women’s hockey team and the athletic community have joined together in drawing attention to her cause.
Hughes has worked alongside teammates and members of the football team to organize bone marrow drives at Yale for the past two years, which have added 1,615 people to the national registry. At least four patients in need of live-saving bone marrow transplants have identified matches through those drives.
“Mandi’s so selfless and positive and always putting others before herself and she’s just always thinking about other people when she’s the one who’s battling through the hardest time,” Hughes said. “She’s just inspired me to take initiative and do so many things. I’m just so thankful for everything she’s taught me, and I’m proud and happy that it has translated into results.”
Hughes, who spoke with Schwartz over the phone Sunday, said her teammate sounded “really tired, but she was good.” Mandi was on the road with her father, traveling back from Minnesota’s Bemidji State University where her brothers and the rest of the Colorado College hockey team played this weekend.
Mandi is now undergoing outpatient palliative chemotherapy — treatment aimed at reducing symptoms, not reversing or curing the disease — in her hometown of Wilcox in Regina, Saskatchewan. She travels regularly to a clinic in Regina for infusions of red blood cells and platelets, her mother Carol wrote in a Feb. 16 post on the website CaringBridge.
The family considered alternative treatments, Carol wrote, but doctors said the likelihood that other options could cure Mandi was less than 5 percent. The treatments would also require travel away from home.
“Considering Mandi’s weak physical condition since the transplant the docs [were] not at all hopeful,” Carol wrote. “We made Mandi aware of the information that was gathered, and she made the final decision to stay home and to continue with the palliative chemotherapy [in lieu of curative chemotherapy].”
Mandi has grown weaker since returning home from Seattle, her mother wrote, and struggles with increased pain, fatigue and a decreased appetite. In early February, the Schwartzes held four birthday celebrations for Mandi — who turned 23 on Feb. 3 — and have surrounded her with friends and family.
THE FORWARD AT YALE: HUGHES’ EFFORTS
In summer 2010, Hughes was part of an urgent push to locate stem cells donors for Schwartz, whose doctors determined she needed a stem cell transplant to survive when no perfect bone marrow match surfaced. Mandi’s story was broadcast on ESPN, ABC News and CBS News, among other major media networks.
The media blitz and donor search seemed to pay off when Mandi’s caregivers announced in early August that two stem cell matches had been found. Mandi received a transplant on Sept. 22, 2010. Though she spent weeks recuperating, battling a still-weak immune system and high susceptibility to disease in the process, the procedure appeared successful.
As Mandi recovered from her transplant, her teammates continued fundraising and awareness efforts at home. Hughes organized a “White Out for Mandi” at Ingalls Rink in November, which drew more than 1,000 people to the Bulldogs’ home. The team raised more than $15,000 for the Schwartzes from donations collected in lieu of admission and the sale of white T-shirts emblazoned with Mandi’s jersey number, 17. The “White Out” and another fundraiser Hughes directed at the Massachusetts Chowder Cup hockey tournament this summer garnered a combined $22,000 for Mandi and her family.
“[The “White Out”] was awesome because it was honoring her in Ingalls Rink,” Hughes said. “There’s no better way to do it. The whole team put so much into it, there was so much support from the Athletic Department… it was people coming to Ingalls to honor her in her hockey home.”
But Mandi’s 26-month battle with cancer took a turn for the worse on Dec. 17, 2010, when she learned she had relapsed once again. It had been approximately 85 days since she received a potentially live-saving stem cell transplant at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She briefly resumed treatment, but the family announced in early January that Mandi would not continue curative chemotherapy.
At home in Wilcox, Mandi’s father, Rick, has returned to work, Carol wrote in the Feb. 16 CaringBridge update. Carol remains at home caring for her daughter, while Mandi’s fiancé, Kaylem Prefontaine, spends his weeks attending classes in Saskatoon and visits the Schwartzes on the weekends.
“We all have been strengthened by Mandi, by faith and by all of you,” Carol wrote at the end of her update. “Trust that we are doing the best that we can and please know that we aren’t feeling sorry for what we won’t have, we instead are fully appreciating the time we presently have and have had in the past!”
Hughes is the fifth player in women’s hockey program history to be named a finalist for the Humanitarian Award.