Despite Plight, Mandi Schwartz Inspires
She is a hockey player, and true hockey players, the ones weaned on wake-up calls before sunrise and long drives to games and aching, bruised shins, well, those sort of hockey players just can't stay away.
"That day was pretty amazing. We were like, 'Oh, these are amazing cookies,' and she was like, 'Oh, I'll give you the recipe,'" says Maddie Davis, a 13-year-old forward for Western Washington Female Hockey Association Phoenix, an all-girls team that plays predominantly against boys-only teams. "It was so awesome that she came to our bench and helped coach. When we found out her leukemia had returned, we were all bumming."
It's not fair -- though those are three words Mandi would never dare say during her two years-plus battle with acute myeloid leukemia. The cancer has returned, more aggressive than ever, and all treatment has been suspended. She's at home in her native Saskatchewan now, surrounded by her two brothers, her parents and her fiancé, the quintessential hockey family spending, as Jonathan Holloway, master of Calhoun College at Yale University, wrote, "their days in quiet celebration of their time together."
No, not fair at all, but cancer never is.
She's only 22. She was supposed to graduate from Yale, maybe help the Bulldogs win a championship in women's ice hockey, marry her childhood sweetheart Kaylem Prefontaine, cheer for her brother Jaden in his journey as a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues, skate for the millionth time around the makeshift rink behind the family's home in the tiny hamlet of Wilcox with her other brother Rylan, watch NHL games with her mother Carol, eat late-night pizza with her father Rick.
However this ends, whenever this ends, there is zero chance Mandi will be forgotten by those who loved her, those who played with her and those blessed to circle in her orbit for barely a moment.
The pre-teen and teenage girls on the Phoenix team that skates out of western Washington will talk about her forever, not just because she was their role model and idol in a sport that has few. They recognize in Mandi traits indicative to every true athlete -- perseverance, determination, grace, fearlessness -- but mostly they saw a kindred spirit, one who cherishes the sound of blades on ice.
It was a Saturday in December when Mandi made her coaching debut for the Phoenix. The previous few months had been beyond brutal -- many cancer patients wouldn't have survived -- but the Sept. 22 stem-cell transplant at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance's inpatient unit at the University of Washington Medical Center seemed to be working, her blood-cell counts improving incrementally. She could walk now, slowly, laboriously, looking so unlike the girl who, according to her Yale teammates, was a whirl of perpetual energy on the ice and in the classroom.
Days after the transplant, Mandi jumped on a stationary exercise bike, a medical marvel to most everyone who peeked into the room. Then came serious complications -- a liver condition that required Mandi to move to the intensive care unit, lung infections, intestinal inflammation, her days marked by hallucinations and relentless vomiting.
She rebounded, again, and while it's simplistic to credit the toughness bred in her from a lifetime of athletics, it wouldn't be wrong, either. The stem cells appeared to be engrafting with the bone marrow; her body began generating new immune cells. Could it be? The transplant looked successful, her cancer in remission. What a fantastic ending to a story that had inspired millions of Mandi's fans, old and new, from all across the world.
Though the risk of infection was still high, there was Mandi and her omnipresent bottle of hand sanitizer at the Kent Valley Ice Centre on that chilly December morning. She brought those homemade cookies as a gift for the team that had unofficially adopted her as a big sister during her hospitalization in Seattle, but really she was there for one reason.
Behind the bench she hopped, this tiny wisp of a thing wrapped in layer upon layer, and what happened across the next three periods was simply divine. All season long the girls on the under-14 Phoenix team had worn a No. 17 patch on their jerseys -- Mandi's number at Yale -- and they had retired the No. 17 jersey, but now they were playing the Kent Valley Boys team, on the Kent Valley Boys team's home ice, in front of a crowd that figured the Kent Valley Boys team wouldn't have much trouble with the all-girls Phoenix side.
Somehow, Mandi summoned the energy to prowl the bench, saying and sometimes slightly shouting words of wisdom honed from millions of hours at the rink. The game was scoreless deep into the first period when she called together the Phoenix and gave them advice that might not have rocked Lombardi, but resonated nonetheless.
"She told us to just try our best and not worry about the score," says Nora Keaney, a defenseman who promptly tallied off a full-ice rush, causing whiplashes throughout the stands. Keaney then assisted on Woodard Hooper's goal, scored again late in the third period, goalie Anna Stensland turned away 23 shots and the Phoenix stopped the Kent Valley Boys team, 3-0.
Rarely has there been a one-time assistant coach as satisfied as Mandi Schwartz was on that fine day. For three glorious periods, in a frosty rink similar to the hundreds she frequented as a child in Saskatchewan, Mandi wasn't a leukemia patient. She was a hockey nut, swaying to the music of blades skimming ice.
Nora Keaney, wobbling atop skates at age four, is 13 now, and she plays alongside Maddie Davis on an elite select team. They competed in the MLK Invitational Girls'/Women's Hockey Tournament in San Jose over the holiday weekend, took second place, and talked about Mandi Schwartz the way teenage boys talk about Sidney Crosby.
"When I first met her she was at the hospital. She didn't look too good. We were just happy she was getting better," Nora says. "There aren't a lot of (hockey) opportunities for girls. The leagues are almost always all guys. She's such an inspiration to us."
Patrick Keaney, Nora's father, hails from a hockey-playing Massachusetts family, but he's new to coaching girls, and when he had questions about their skating strides or skill levels, Mandi, from her hospital bed, drew up a bunch of defensive drills. He loves saying the Phoenix are "undefeated with Mandi on the bench."
"We never asked them to win for Mandi. That's too much burden for the girls," he says. "We ask them to dedicate their effort for Mandi."
He is sitting in a hotel lounge near the Seattle airport, already looking exhausted from just thinking about the flight to London he soon has to catch, but then the tales about Mandi and her extraordinary family start to flow, and Keaney glows. He must be talking about old friends -- just a few days earlier Keaney packed up the Schwartz' rental apartment in Seattle and drove their belongings across the Canadian prairies to Wilcox, the small village nestled south of Regina, something only an old and dear friend would do.
But no, they met mere months ago, after Keaney's wife read an item about Mandi's plight. Rick and Carol Schwartz, she learned, would be staying near the University of Washington Medical Center while their daughter underwent the bone marrow transplant. They hadn't a car. The Keaneys insisted they take one of theirs, for as long as it was needed.
Who does that for complete strangers?
The sort of folks who believe in mankind's inherent goodness.
Here is where Mandi's lasting impact, her legacy, lingers in the mind forever. It's in the thousands of folks who organized or contributed to bone marrow registration drives as Mandi, for two years, searched for a match. It's in the Web pages and Facebook groups created in her honor, the fundraisers and bake sales and donations from hockey teams like the Saskatoon Blades, the bike rides, white outs, walks, suppers and prayer chains in her name.
It's in every day heroes, disguised in ordinary packages.
There is something about Mandi. Something that made the hockey community and outsiders alike want to come to her aid. Her resolve, her sunny, humble outlook, struck deep. In and out of chemotherapy treatments for 20 months, she still managed to return to Yale last January when the leukemia went in remission. She practiced with the team, skated and lifted weights and slipped into training routines embedded in her DNA, but the cancer returned.
Some 1,600 people were tested to be possible bone marrow donors, about 1,300 more than the population of Mandi's hometown, but the search to find an adult bone marrow match was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, she contracted a nasty case of pneumonia, spent days in the ICU straining to breath while hooked up to oxygen tanks, endured additional rounds of chemotherapy, fought to survive.
Finally it was discovered that the umbilical-cord blood of an 18-month-old girl was enough of a match -- not exact, as in the case in bone marrow, but a match in five of the six critical areas. Mandi was elated, even felt well enough to throw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. She told reporters she was going to have a whole new immune system, along with a new blood type, and if everything went well, if her body could fight off the remaining leukemia cells, she hoped to return to Yale for her senior year.
"I can't imagine a life where I'm not working out, and I'd like to play (for Yale) again,'' she said before that August baseball game. "But if not, I'll at least play at rec league hockey.''
In December, just before Christmas, Mandi underwent another biopsy. The next day she skated with the Phoenix, the all-girls team that either she adopted, or that adopted her -- didn't really matter, since they had all become family. It was her first time skating since the September transplant. Mandi was shaky at first, and she took a few tumbles, but if joy could melt ice, there'd be no more hockey in Seattle.
Three days later the biopsy results came back, confirming the worst: the cancer had returned, more vicious than ever. The Schwartz family broke down weeping, and typical Mandi, she apologized to her father for not getting better. She didn't want them to go through any more pain. On Jan. 7, Mandi sent an e-mail to her friends and followers, saying doctors told her the leukemia could no longer be treated.
And so after a lengthy and fierce fight that included many rounds of chemotherapy, a move to another country, prolonged hospital stays, a hopeful return to Yale, a relapse, a vigorous and planet-wide search for a bone marrow donor, a supposedly successful stem-cell transplant, a memorable return to the ice and the embracing of love and support from uncommonly decent folks who only recently were complete strangers, Mandi and the Schwartz family have returned to Wilcox, Saskatchewan.
They ask only for prayers.