It doesn’t take an Ivy Leaguer to understand that cancer is bad and that doing something to cure it is always good, but at Yale University, athletes from several Bulldogs teams – as well as others from around the campus and the community – have nonetheless made it their mission over the last few years to help save lives while preserving the legacy of one of their own.
On April 16, as part of the "Get in the Game, Save a Life" campaign, Yale will host its seventh annual Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive with the goal of adding as many names as possible to the national Be The Match national marrow donor program.
The drive is named in memory of Schwartz, a former Yale women’s ice hockey player who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2008. Schwartz was never able to find a perfect match for a potentially life-saving bone marrow transplant, but was passionate throughout her fight about growing the national registry to help save the lives of others.
"It was very important to her, and she was very excited about it," Mandi’s mother, Carol Schwartz, told FOX Sports on Wednesday. "I remember when her AML relapsed (in April 2010), I’d gone up there and was supposed to bring her home and they were preparing for the drive that year. She was so excited to be a part of it and you could hear that it was something that meant a lot to her. Unfortunately, when the relapse happened, they said we had to get her back as soon as possible."
Schwartz died on April 3, 2011, at age 23, and less than three weeks later, the Yale drive Schwartz worked so hard to promote added nearly 900 names to the Be The Match registry, one of the best turnouts in the program’s six-year history at the school.
Yale’s first event, in 2009, saw 704 registrants, with 921 more potential donors added to the list in 2010. The 2012 Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive resulted in 500 new names, and 2013 and 2014 saw 843 and 686 participants, respectively. In five of the six years it has participated, Yale has had the biggest turnout in the country among more than 50 schools involved in Get in the Game, Save a Life, and this year, the school is hoping to boost its numbers even more.
"We have come close and have had two years in the 900s, but the goal is 1,000 people," said Yale assistant football coach Larry Ciotti, who originally brought the drive to Yale at the urging of his close friend, Villanova football coach Andy Talley, who started the GITG initiative after Be The Match reached out looking to expand its on-campus drive efforts.
Yale assistant coach Larry Ciotti
"They’re obviously mostly Yale students and as the drives go on each year, most of the students have been tested. However, we do have 1,400 freshmen every year who probably have not been tested, because you have to be 18 years old, so that’s who we really target, and also community members and graduate students who haven’t been tested."
Though the tests cost an average of $100, registration is free to anyone looking to join the registry. And in addition to facilitating record sign-up numbers, Yale has also been exceptionally fortunate with regard to finding actual donors, as well. Since the program started, the Yale program has found 28 perfect matches for transplants in a pool of 4,538 potential donors.
"We went two years and I was wondering, ‘When are we going to get a match from our drive?’ and all of a sudden – of course, the more people you test, the more likelihood there is that you’ll get a match – after our second drive, we found out that a person was a match and saved a life," Ciotti said. "Then it just kept accumulating, and now we’re averaging almost five perfect matches, five lives saved, for every year that we do it."
One out of every 162 registrants might not sound like a lot, but it’s actually well above the national average. According to Be The Match, only one in 300 people in the registry, on average, are selected as the best possible donor for a patient and only one out of every 540 actually end up donating.
"It’s almost like a miracle in itself, those numbers," Carol Schwartz said. "If you talk to the people who are in charge of the national registry, those statistics from Yale are very high and very unusual and it’s usually much harder to find matches. It’s quite spectacular."
“If you talk to the people who are in charge of the national registry, those statistics from Yale are very high and very unusual and it’s usually much harder to find matches. It’s quite spectacular.
Carol Schwartz, Mandi's mom
One of the matches borne of the Yale drives is current Bulldogs outside linebackers coach Paul Rice. A former cornerback and linebacker at Yale, Rice joined the registry during his junior season as a player, in 2009. Then in June 2013, Rice learned that he was a possible match. An additional round of blood tests determined that Rice was a perfect match for a patient and on Dec. 31, 2013, Rice made a donation.
"You’re doing something selfless and putting yourself out there to possibly help somebody who is much worse off, health-wise, than yourself," Rice told FOX Sports. "You’re giving an opportunity for someone who is terminally ill to extend their life and possibly cure them, so it’s a great feeling. It’s something that I took a lot of pride in and I know the guys in our program do, big time. It’s a pretty incredible feeling when you donate."
Due to patient confidentiality laws, Rice — who is one of three members of the Yale football staff to have donated bone marrow in the last several years — doesn’t know anything about the recipient of his bone marrow, other than the fact that it was a 41-year-old male, but simply knowing that he made a difference is rewarding enough for Rice.
"It’s great to know that I was able to be a part of this and hopefully either improve or extend the quality of life of someone who is terminally ill, and possibly cure them," Rice said. "To me, it was a no-brainer, and if you have a chance to do something like this, I think you owe it to yourself and that person, that family, to do it."
At Yale, the football, women’s ice hockey, field hockey and softball teams have been leading the charge to get people signed up, but for some who have not yet been added to the registry, the hesitation stems from concern over how invasive the process might be, or how long it takes. It’s not challenging or time-consuming at all, however, as potential donors only have to give a cheek swab and fill out some paperwork, and are usually out the door in 15 minutes.
And for those who turn out to be matches and are eventually chosen to donate, the process is actually quite simple. Many perfect matches end up donating peripheral blood stem cells, which basically involves sitting in a chair for a few hours.
"To be honest, it’s a lot like donating blood," Rice said. "You get hooked up to a machine, they draw blood from one arm and then put it through a machine that extracts plasma and what they need out of the blood, then puts it back in your body through the other arm. It takes anywhere from four to six hours, but it’s not painful. After you’re done, you might be a little bit tired, but you can go on about your life and have a normal day right after it. I think there’s kind of a stigma that it’s much more painful and much more taxing on your body than it actually is."
Others who donate actual bone marrow are required to undergo a surgical procedure, but the procedure is typically outpatient and the most common side effects are soreness or fatigue that usually subside within a few days or weeks. And those who have done it will say it’s a minor inconvenience to save a life — a goal that was near to Mandi Schwartz’s heart until the end.
Paul Rice is one of three members of the Yale football staff to have been a bone marrow match for someone.
"It’s something that the Yale community, and especially the Yale athletic community, takes a lot of pride in," Rice said. "We compete with a lot of colleges around the country to see how many people we can get into the registry, so for us, it’s a great source of pride, and I hope for Mandi’s family, that they take pride in it too and are happy with the work that we’re doing."
"We were very honored when they named the drive in Mandi’s honor after she passed … and it’s nice to see the increase in the registry, but it’s also very nice to learn of the matches," Carol Schwartz added. "We’ve met a few of the students who have been matches, and it’s always very rewarding to speak to them or read their stories."
Added Mandi’s father, Rick: "It sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it."
The Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale will be held Thursday, April 16, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Yale University Commons. It is open to the general public (registrants must be between the ages of 18 and 44) and no advance registration is required. For more info on this and other drives, contact the Be The Match Foundation at 1-800-MARROW-2. You can also donateto the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation and to Be The Match online.