Almost three years ago, Yale center Mandi Schwartz was diagnosed with a form of cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia. She battled the disease for 27 months, undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, before finally succumbing to the cancer last April.
In the midst of her fight, her story was thrust into the national spotlight as a bone marrow match was sought in an effort to save her life. In three Yale drives alone, over 2,500 people registered with Be The Match, the National Marrow Donor Program. Six of those registrants were identified to by matches for patients in need of transplants. Schwartz’ battle and search for a match was documented by several local and national news outlets and it was well-followed within the close-knit hockey community.
While a match was never found for Schwartz, the outpouring of support touched Schwartz and her family.
“When Mandi was sick and after she passed there was a lot of talk about how lucky she was to have so many people supporting her, whether it was the bone marrow drive or setting special events like throwing out an opening pitch at a baseball game,” senior captain Aleca Hughes said. “There were so many people willing to help her. We all realized how special that was to have so many people behind her in her battle.”
In Schwartz’ honor, Hughes is heading up the Mandi Schwartz Foundation with the mission of creating self-sustaining support systems for youth hockey players with life-threatening illnesses.
“We talked about it when Mandi was alive — continuing those types of support networks for other kids that are sick,” Hughes said.
The foundation — a 501(c)3 charitable organization — is making its’ first big fundraising push on Dec. 2 at the Yale-Princeton women’s hockey game at Ingalls Rink. The goal is to fill Ingalls Rink, which seats 3,500, with everyone wearing white as a “White Out for Mandi” in support of the cause. There is no admission at the 7 p.m. contest, but donations for the Foundation will be accepted at the door along with donor pledges based on the attendance total. Yale’s Ivy League foe Princeton is also expected to make a donation to the foundation.
Hughes says the foundation will look to start carrying out their mission as soon as possible.
“We’re lucky that the hockey community is closely-knit,” Hughes said. “Since we came up with this idea over the summer, we’ve already heard of two cases like this. We have big goals and one day hope to be synonymous with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, so hopefully people will eventually come to us. Until then, keeping up with the news through different hockey publications there are ways to find out – even just word of mouth.
“For example, if there is a young hockey player in Boston who finds out he has leukemia like Mandi did, then we would want to go into their community and help their school district or hockey program start a bone marrow drive or set him up with the Boston College men’s hockey team to go to a game so they can feel a part of something and have something to look forward to. We want to facilitate people rallying around those kids.”
Schwartz herself was amazed by the number fellow student-athletes, athletics staff, and people in the hockey community that supported her during her illness.
“We talked about it all the time,” Hughes said. “She was so humbled by it. She always said she didn’t understand how we had time do this because she knew what it was like to be a Yale student-athlete. She was humbled by the number of people reaching out in various ways. There was such a huge outpouring of help that it was overwhelming in a good way. She wanted to help others in the same way she received help.”
Schwartz’ spirit still is an inspiration for the Yale women’s team. She had an extreme passion for hockey, and was a kind-hearted person. Her memory is kept alive in team slogans and mottos, and her jersey – No. 17 – hangs in her locker for every home game and road trip.
“I came in as a new coach and didn’t have an opportunity to coach her or get to know her well, but I think who she was a person still resonates with the team on a daily basis,” second-year Yale head coach Joakim Flygh said. “It is something we try to emulate and live up to everyday with some traditions that we have for Mandi. It means a lot for us. The start of this foundation is another step in honoring the type of person she was.”
At the “White Out for Mandi”, special white t-shirts will be sold, and youth hockey teams are encouraged to come wearing white jerseys. The Bulldogs will also honor Mandi in a special pre-game ceremony, and the event will also help raise awareness of the need for marrow donors and umbilical cord blood donors.
Yale is hoping to set the attendance record for a women’s game at Ingalls Rink. The current mark currently stands at 1,539 when Team USA played the ECAC Hockey All-Stars in an exhibition game in 2005. Last year’s “White Out for Mandi” drew a crowd of 1,066 fans — the most for a Yale women’s hockey game.
“It is really cool because it brings our team together, and brings the greater New Haven community together and the hockey community and Yale – it is really special,” Hughes said.
“It is going to be neat to see to see where it goes in the next six months when people get behind this foundation,” Flygh said. “Our kids have put a tremendous amount of effort in this to make it really take off.”