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Yale Athlete's Plight Gives Another Chance to Save Life

Dec 24, 2010 – 11:10 AM
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David Whitley

David Whitley %BloggerTitle%

Christmas stories are supposed to be happy, not leave you wondering why people don't get the gift they desperately need.

Mandi Schwartz was hoping to go home free of cancer. Instead, after a stem-cell transplant and months of treatment in Seattle, the disease has returned. The Yale hockey player will still head back to her Saskatchewan home next week, but she will go with fresh doubts and fears.

It's futile to ask why anyone, especially a 22-year-old like Mandi, has to get leukemia. But it might help to know that because of her plight, somebody will be getting a priceless gift.

The person delivering it is Lexy Adams. She's a field hockey player at Yale who has never even met Mandi. But when she got to campus last year, she couldn't avoid her.

It seemed everybody wanted to help Mandi, who was originally diagnosed two years ago. There were fundraisers and donor-registration drives. Not just at Yale, but throughout Canada.

Mandi needed a stranger's stem cells to survive, but so do a lot of leukemia patients. And like most of us, Lexy would be willing to help. Then we get caught up in life and never get around to finding out if we might be a donor.

"I'd never even thought about it," Lexy said.

Then the Yale football team and women's hockey team organized a registration drive this spring. Lexy went and the technician swabbed the inside of her cheek. The 18-year-old's genetic makeup was registered in the National Marrow Donor Program.

"I never thought it would be me. The potential to save somebody's life is pretty amazing."
-- Lexy Adams
Lexy figured that would be that. Transplants are such a genetic crapshoot, the vast majority of registrants never hear from donor programs again.

A few months passed, and Lexy got a call. She was a potential match.

Not for Mandi, but for somebody in the same situation.

"I was kind of freaked out," she said, "being afraid of needles and all that."

She started researching what she'd gotten herself into. Lexy found out the chances she'd actually be a match were still remote. She went in for more definitive tests, but never heard anything.

Then she got another call over Thanksgiving break. It was a go. Doctors set up a conference call with Lexy and her family to explain what would happen next.

Stem cells can be harvested from umbilical cord blood from newborn babies, or from bone marrow which can be extracted from the pelvis bone. Lexy would be a peripheral donor, meaning the stem cells would be extracted from her blood.

It would essentially be like lying down and donating blood for six hours. That's a lot of needle time. But some fears are easily overcome.

"I don't know how anybody would ever say no if they were called to do it," Lexy said.

Confidentiality requirements don't allow her to know the identity of the recipient. She will get updates after a month, six months and one year. If both sides want to meet at that point, they are allowed to.

"I think that would be pretty cool," Lexy said.

For now she couldn't even divulge the exact day she was going in to donate. But sometime in the past few days, Lexy went with her mother and a friend to a Washington D.C. hospital.

She was hooked up to a machine that siphoned her blood, spun it around and pumped it back in. Lexy was told she'd probably be sore and tired for a couple of days afterward, but that's where the discomfort should end.

The recipient started undergoing the pre-transplant treatment Mandi went through in September. He or she was isolated and bombarded with radiation and chemotherapy.

The idea is to make sure all remaining cancer is gone, and essentially drain the old immune system. Transplanted cells come in and form a new one.

It sounds like changing the oil in your car. If only it were that simple. There's a lingering danger of rejection. Mandi battled through agonizing and life-threatening side effects and complications.

It's all worthwhile if the new immune system takes hold and the cancer cells don't find a new home. A recent biopsy showed Mandi's acute myeloid leukemia had returned.

Doctors have put her in a research program to study the effects of a new drug called Azacitidine. She can get the treatment at a facility near her home, so at least she and her parents can move out of their little two-bedroom apartment in Seattle they've been living in since July.

"The results of the biopsy caught us off guard because we had hoped to be done with this part of the battle," said Carol Schwartz, Mandi's mother. "Mandi remains committed to fighting this disease, and we are going to do everything in our power to help her."

If you've followed the story, you know how true that is. From the highest National Hockey League offices to school kids writing get-well cards in Connecticut, Mandi's story has touched thousands of people.

It's impossible to measure the ripple effect, though somewhere there's a person feeling it. If Mandi had never gotten sick, there wouldn't have been all those donor searches. At least four matches have been found through the registration drives at Yale.

I don't know about the other three donors, but Lexy Adams never would have had her cheek swabbed that day if not for Mandi. Her Christmas shopping list had started with getting a Yale tennis sweater for her mother and a San Diego Chargers cap for her boyfriend.

Now she's giving something only she has to somebody she doesn't know.

"I never thought it would be me," Lexy said. "The potential to save somebody's life is pretty amazing."

That's all it is -- potential. As the Schwartz's know too well, it's a gift, not a guarantee.

There is no answer to why cancer chose Mandi. Somewhere, however, a desperate person now has hope.

It's not the perfect Christmas story. But maybe Mandi's gone through so much so others won't have to.
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