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Yale Women Open Locker Room, Hearts for Giana Cardonita

Nov 17, 2010 – 12:29 PM
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John Walters

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Giana Cardonita in front of Mandi Schwartz's locker"How much do you girls miss her?"

Late last Friday evening Giana Cardonita, a 9-year-old from Guilford, Conn., who was recently "adopted" by the Yale women's hockey team, stood inside the Bulldog locker room. Moments earlier Yale had lost at home to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 4-1, to move to 0-5-2 on the season. Now the Bulldogs rustled up some smiles to wear and formed a hockey-stick archway through which their newest teammate, Cardonita, was to march. Awaiting her at the end of this brief parade was both a locker and a jersey, the latter of which fit like a nightgown, with Cardonita's name on them.

"How much do you girls miss her?"

Cardonita was staring at, transfixed by, actually, the locker of Mandi Schwartz. The Bulldog forward, whose No. 17 jersey hangs in her locker, is 3,000 miles away in Seattle. Schwartz has not been on campus since last April. She is recovering from her second bout with acute myeloid leukemia, a battle that has seen her undergo numerous chemotherapy treatments as well as a stem-cell transplant since it was first diagnosed on December 7, 2008.

"How much do you girls miss her?" asked Cardonita.

"A lot," her new family answered in unison.

This is a story about what can be achieved when good people happen to bad things. It begins on Monday, Dec. 8, 2008. Mandi Schwartz was late for practice. And not just a little bit.

"Where's Mandi?" former teammate Danielle Kozlowski remembers asking. "She's 45 minutes late."

This was not just unusual. It was unheard of. Schwartz, a forward from the speed-trap town of Wilcox, Saskatchewan (pop. 250), is a rink rat. When Yale players are released for a few days during Christmas break, no one comes within a mile of a frozen surface. Except Mandi. She'd post photos of herself; her fiance, Kaylem Prefontaine and her younger brothers, Rylan and Jaden, both of whom now play at Colorado College, playing outdoors on Facebook.

"I've never met anyone who loves anything as much as Mandi loves hockey," said Berit Johnson, another former Bulldog skater.

As loyal teammates, Kozlowski and others texted Schwartz while they sat inside their locker room, urging her to hustle over to Ingalls Rink. The only thing working in Schwartz's favor: Coach Hillary Witt had yet to arrive, either.

When Witt at last entered, she was not upset by Schwartz's absence. In fact, she explained it. "Mandi has been diagnosed with leukemia," said Witt, who is now an assistant at Northeastern.

Thus began the odyssey of Schwartz, who only earlier that day had received the results from blood tests confirming the diagnosis. Since then she has undergone five rounds of chemotherapy while spending 130 days in the hospital; returned to Yale 13 months later (Jan. 2009) and resumed practicing with the Bulldogs; learned, on April 19, 2009, that her disease had returned; undergone a life-saving stem-cell transplant on Sept. 22; and, finally, on Oct. 30, been discharged from a hospital in Seattle.

"It just seemed so unfair the first time," Johnson said. "Then to have to go through it again? But Mandi, she's never going to give up."

Mandi SchwartzJust as cancer cells can spread through one's body, good will can suffuse throughout a community. Not long ago David Gimbel, a former Yale golfer who is now a neurosurgery resident at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital, saw a piece on HBO's "Real Sports" about a program entitled "Friends of Jaclyn." The foundation matches children with brain tumors with a collegiate sports team, which then "adopts" that child.

Gimbel is an academic adviser to Yale students, one of whom is Bulldog forward Alyssa Zupon. "Why don't we do that here?" Gimbel asked Zupon.

"Why don't we?" Zupon replied.

And this is where, because of Mandi Schwartz, who is 3,000 miles away recovering from two bouts with leukemia, special people were given an avenue to do special things. Michael DiLuna is a former offensive tackle at Yale ('98) who is now a neurosurgeon at Yale-New Haven Children's. When Gimbel mentioned his idea to DiLuna, his friend instantly thought of his 9-year-old patient.

"Giana's smart and she loves to read," said DiLuna, a brain surgeon who has the pretentiousness of a New York City cabbie, which is to say none. "She's always asking questions."

So inquisitive is Cardonita, and so much does she love reading, that DiLuna and a resident bought her a brain anatomy textbook. The same one a Yale medical student would use.

"I'd come by on rounds and she'd ask, 'What's the medulla oblongata? What's the pons?' " DiLuna said. "Then she'd pull out the book from under the covers."

Mandi Schwartz and Giana Cardonita have never met, but they have a lot in common. "Mandi told the hospital that she wanted to bring an exercise bike into her room," Kozlowski said. "Who but Mandi would do that?"

Sarah Tittman, another former teammate, heard recently from the one person whom she knows in Seattle. "He told me he saw this woman walk into the Cross Fit gym last week wearing Yale hockey shorts with a No. 17 on them," Tittman said. "That had to be Mandi. She's only been out of the hospital for two weeks."

Giana's mother, Donna Cardonita, tells similar stories of her daughter's resolve. When Giana was 4 or 5, she began vomiting four to five times a month. No pediatrician ever suggested a CAT scan, so Donna simply chalked it up to her daughter being a finicky eater. Giana never complained.

"When Giana felt nauseous, she'd pull out her sleeping blanket and sleep on the floor next to her pail," said her mother. "She was a total pro about it."

The vomiting spells never ceased. Meanwhile, Giana was not growing. Finally, last summer, she began to suffer from recurring headaches. Only then was a CAT scan performed, only then was a benign tumor the size of two clementines piled atop each other discovered, and only then did Dr. DiLuna enter their lives.

Giana Cardonita, Dr. DiLuna and Yale women's hockey teamDr. DiLuna prescribed two options. "You can shrink the tumor through chemo or radiation," he told Donna Cardonita and stepfather Joe Nastri, "or you can take the whole damn thing out."

"I just saw this halo above his head," Cardonita said of DiLuna. "Colonoscopies, endoscopies, biopsies, all of the things Giana's been through. At last we knew what we were fighting."

And so last August Michael DiLuna, who once battled across the line of scrimmage from future NFL Pro Bowler Marcellus Wiley, picked up a scalpel and cut open a little girl's skull. In order to ease her suffering. And then, with the help of Dr. Gimbel, he matched her with the Yale women's hockey team, which had a void that needed to be filled.

Last Friday evening at Ingalls Rink, Yale held a "White Out for Mandi." The Bulldogs drew a record crowd of 1,066, including the Cardonita family, for the RPI contest and raised $9,000 for the Schwartz family to help defray medical expenses. The skaters from RPI donated a $1,000 check themselves from a fundraiser they had held the previous weekend. Overall, $15,000 was raised.

Schwartz, who may need up to a year to fully recover from the stem-cell transplant, watched online. Giana Cardonita watched the hockey game, her first, from a seat just off center ice. Afterward, she met the team and introduced them to DiLuna, "the doctor who saved my life."

As this scene was unfolding, Donna Cardonita stood off to the side, her eyes moist. Behind her, above a grease board on which plays are diagrammed, someone had scrawled a three-word mantra: "Struggle and Emerge."

Last Saturday night, Yale beat Union 4-1 for its first win of the season. The victories have been plentiful.
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