The gesture was so subtle that some of Mandi Schwartz's teammates didn't even notice it at first.
When the Yale University Bulldogs lined up for pre-game introductions this season, they left Schwartz's customary spot on the ice empty as she battled leukemia back in Regina.
“Some of us didn't even know they were doing it,” said goaltender Jackee Snikeris. “It was a quiet thing that represented how much we still care for her and want her back.”
The 22-year-old Schwartz needs a stem cell transplant to save her life. It's made even more difficult in her case because she's of mixed ancestry (Russian/German/Ukranian) and researchers have yet to find her a 10-out-of-10 DNA match. A worldwide campaign called “Become Mandi's Hero” is underway (becomemandishero.org) to find a perfect match.
Dr. Tedd Collins, a clinical immunologist who lost his daughter, Natasha, to leukemia last August and is an advocate for the Schwartz family, said the best chance for a match is blood from an umbilical cord. He has Schwartz's teammates contacting media outlets and ob-gyn offices in the U.S. with the heaviest concentration of ethnic backgrounds matching that of Schwartz, who has acute myeloid leukemia.
Collins said they need to do a transplant within the next 30 to 45 days in order for her to survive.
“Mandi's very bright. She knows what's going on,” said Collins. “That's a horrible feeling. She knows what happened to Natasha, which is even worse. She knows. And I hate that she knows.”
Schwartz learned June 9 that the cancer is in remission, but is still undergoing chemotherapy in Regina after a brief respite at home to keep the disease at bay while the hunt for a donor proceeds. She was originally diagnosed in December 2008 and was able to return to school and her team last year after the initial round of chemotherapy, but the leukemia came back last December.
She was recently engaged to Kaylem Prefontaine, her high school sweetheart at Notre Dame College in her native Wilcox, Sask, where her picture is on a Wall of Fame with the likes of NHL greats Vincent Lecavalier and Curtis Joseph.
Hers is a hockey family and her two younger brothers followed her into the sport. It should be a time of celebration right now as younger brother Jaden is touted as a second-round pick in the upcoming NHL draft in Los Angeles. Their parents, Carol and Rick, are still hoping to be there, but will make a last-minute decision depending on Mandi's health.
In the meantime, Jaden is doing his part to help his sister's cause.
“As soon as she relapsed, we explained to Jaden 'You're probably going to be known as the boy in the draft whose sister has leukemia,'” said Carol. “He didn't have any issues with that. He said wherever he can help with getting that promoted, he's happy with that. It's been great because I think we've reached a whole bunch of people through his interviews.”
Among those also helping raise awareness is Team Canada women's captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who first met Schwartz about seven years ago. She has kept in touch with the family throughout the ordeal.
“There is no doubt Mandi is sick and in need of help, but I think she sees her life past the cancer and with her future husband one day, and that tells me she's a fighter and we should fight for her as well!” said Wickenheiser in an email.
Schwartz's resolve is undeniable. During the initial chemotherapy, she was still skating after each round finished.
“I just went on the ice at every chance I could,” said Schwartz in a telephone interview this week. “It was amazing. It just encouraged me for the next time I went in the hospital.”
That's no longer possible, but even in Regina this week she asked that a stationary bike be brought to her hospital room so she could do a light workout. She's still feeling the effects of a bout of pneumonia that left her with fluid in her lungs during her last round of chemotherapy and had her hooked up to tubes in the Intensive Care Unit.
“It's also important to keep moving when you have pneumonia,” said Schwartz. “I don't want to sit in my bed all day. I want to try to get rid of it.”
Her voice is weak, her sentences are interrupted by coughing, but she remains every ounce the fighter she's always been on the ice.
“I concentrate on getting better at the moment,” she said. “That's my goal and I focus on that and not the negatives. I work on overcoming all the obstacles I have to go through while at the hospital.”
One of the shortest players on the team at 5-foot-5, Schwartz is a gritty and tenacious in-your-face forward, a quiet leader revered by her teammates. They're devastated by what she is going through, but working as a team with Collins to find her a donor. Players from other teams have also joined them.
“She's one of those teammates you can always count on,” said Snikeris. “She's honestly one of the most hard working players I've ever seen. She's so selfless and never asks you of anything. I think that's part of the reason why everyone's got behind her because she's that kind of person and player.”
It was in December of 2008 that everyone began to realize something was very wrong. The player with the best work ethic, someone who had the longest streak of consecutive games on the team at 73, was suddenly struggling just to skate the width of the ice.
“Even when we won a game, she would be like crying because she hated not being able to give everything,” said Snikeris. “It was just killing her. We all saw that, but of course we didn't know how grave it was.”
Collins believes a transplant using stem cells from cord blood is probably her only hope. He said more than 10,000 potential new bone marrow donors for Mandi have come forward through the campaigns but there have been no matches. He believes they'd need to get a pool of 100,000 new blood marrow donors to even have a shot.
“Cord blood, on the other hand, does not have to be as perfectly matched not to hurt Mandi but still gives the same upside,” said Collins.
There is a possible 9-out-of-10 bone marrow match in Germany for Schwartz, but that can still be very problematic. Collins' daughter Natasha died after getting a transplant from a 9-out-of-10 bone marrow match. Her ancestry was African American and Irish American, which also made finding a match exceedingly difficult. Her disease originally went into remission after a cord blood transplant, only to return again.
Collins said Schwartz's type of cancer is particularly virulent with a very high chance of re-occurring.
Collins said their search has reached beyond North America to Germany, England and Israel. The goal is to collect cord blood from 200 people with her ethnic background and come up with at least two partial matches.
He said more than 50 pregnant women have sent in the form agreeing to donate their cord blood so far. He said they have collected blood from 12 donors so far and there are another eight women signed up who are expected to deliver their babies this week.
“One woman's in labour right now and she just called me to ask if there's anything else she can do,” Collins said. “It's really been like that. People have been touched by this campaign and realize they can save her life, so they're fighting to make this happen. An expectant mother can take something they might otherwise throw away and donate it and help save Mandi's life.”
The Schwartz family was buoyed by some recent good news for another young hockey player from Saskatchewan suffering from the same disease. Luke Boechler, a 19-year-old goalie with the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, was scheduled to go for a bone marrow transplant with an unmatched donor, but at the last minute a perfect match was found.
“We're holding out hope that we'll be in those shoes as well, that something's going to come up real soon for her,” said Carol Schwartz.