Back in March, you learned Matt Cook’s story: A young man’s inspirational battle against cancer. Well, Jeff Pister, his hockey coach from a few years back, read that story, and recently approached me to help raise awareness about his cousin, Yale hockey sensation, Mandi Schwartz and her battle against leukemia.
Sadly, Matt’s life couldn’t be saved. But, Mandi’s can – with your help.
Now, the 22-year-old needs a stem cell transplant to survive, and will undergo this operation in August. A partially matched (nine out of 10) bone marrow donor has been identified; however, even a near perfect match can be lethally imperfect.
Specialists say finding a match is even more difficult for Mandi, because of her Russian, German, and Ukrainian decent.
Meanwhile, her family remains stronger and tighter than ever.
“December 8th, 2008 was the worst day of my life,” her dad, Rick Schwartz, tells me.
That was the day his daughter was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. AML is a very progressive form of cancer that starts in the bone marrow and in most cases moves very quickly to the blood.
“I remember when my wife called and told me that Mandi had leukemia. ‘Is she gonna make it?’ I thought. It just floored me. I can’t explain how I felt.”
Even though Rick and his family would endure so much more over the next couple years, December 8th remained the worst day of his life, because the Schwartzes now go through each day as a new day.
“You can’t go everyday being scared out of your pants,” says Rick.
“On a good day, Mandi may feel like talking or eating, but a bad day you may be happy if you just happen to see her. You learn to live with that.”
So for five months after the diagnosis, Mandi underwent chemotherapy. Then relapsed in April of this year. While receiving chemo during that relapse, she developed pneumonia in the ICU.
“The month from hell,” recalls her dad.
“She’s sitting there with tubes down her throat and you hold her hand. That’s all you can do. Be there. Never let her be alone. Spend 24-7 with her.”
But even through perfect health, Rick, along with his wife Carol, have always been there for their three children.
Growing up in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, with a pond in the backyard, all of their kids became exceptional hockey players, and between the three have earned almost half a million dollars in scholarships.
During a once in a lifetime moment, when the spotlight was focussed solely on the 18-year-old, Jaden used that as an opportunity to talk almost entirely about his sister, whom he looks up to like no other.
“She means the world to me. The best sister I could ask for. She's been close to me her whole life. It's not easy not having her here. But I know she's very proud, and she's watching right now.”
The Schwartz family has sacrificed a lot.
Their cousin Jeff says, “I know it's a bold statement, but there is no way I could find a set of parents who have sacrificed more, and put more into their three children than these two.
“Every single aspect of their existence, every minute detail of their lives was based on the kids, especially their hockey.”
Just picture chasing around not one - but three kids - 12 months a year, all over the country and beyond. (All the kids played elite levels of summer and winter hockey, so their training and tournaments were North America-wide.)
Rick would be in Edmonton with one child, Carol in Winnipeg with another, and Jaden would board a plane to billet with generous families.
Mom and dad would pack coolers full of food and snacks, finding every way possible to cover costs.
“It was tiring to watch them follow these three kids around,” says Jeff.
But it’s not just their parents whom the children credit with their successes. It’s also Mandi.
She has had a profound effect on many.
Hanging in Mandi’s old high school, you will find pictures of hockey heroes, including Curtis Joseph, Vincent Lecavalier, Rod Brind’Amour… and Mandi herself.
The team would win, but she would still cry, upset that she couldn’t give it her all.
Through it all, the quiet, but gritty, 5-foot-5 forward, and team leader, has always been admired by her teammates.
In the pre-game introductions, they still leave her spot open in their line on the ice.
Teammate, Bray Ketchum, says, “Mandi's attitude is a replica of this phenomenal spirit, which has helped her every step of her battle. She has been an inspiration to many people, even those who do not know her, which is a testament to what a special person she is.”
“Even when she would score a goal, Mandi never wanted the attention drawn to her. Even though it was her moment she wanted it to be about the team,” says her dad.
Interestingly, Mandi is still uncomfortable with the attention. While worldwide campaigns are in effect for her, Mandi’s hope is that through all this, other people in her situation will find the help they need.
And though she can’t play hockey now, Mandi’s tenacity and determination are preparing her to one day play the game again.
During rounds of chemo, she would still try to keep up her skating skills. When she couldn’t skate anymore, her father would find her, in a chemotherapy session, with IV lines hanging out her arms, exercising on the hospital room floor.
Right now Mandi is in remission again. She needs to be in remission, when she travels to Seattle this August, for the transplant to take place.
Mandi must also remain in her hospital room, as all her white blood cells – those that fight infection – have been destroyed.
So, after losing about 30 pounds due to her chemo and pneumonia, Mandi has asked for a stationary bike in her room. She now rides about 25 minutes a day – more than most “healthy” people do in a week.
And it is this army of supporters that is looking to find Mandi’s hero – a stem cell match.
You can help by registering as a donor. The test is simple; you have your cheek swabbed. If you prove to be her match – or anyone else’s match - saving a life, will be a simple as donating blood.
But, the best chance for Mandi – and many others – is found in the stem cells of umbilical cord blood. These cells are immature, and more likely to be accepted as they mature and adapt into the recipient’s blood.
It is remarkable. We are at a point in time, where we can actually play with life and death.
Imagine if everybody automatically registered as donors, Mandi would probably already have a match.
She is fighting for her life; yet, incredibly close to being guaranteed a normal life.
Ironically, in a world that is so advanced and makes such inconceivable strides in medicine, we throw life in a garbage.
Because umbilical cords, rich with life-saving stem cells, end up in medical dumpsters.
Many people do not know that cord blood can be donated for free. (Or banked – at a fee – for your own children, should they face an emergency later in life.)
So, why do we work so hard to find cures when we have the cure right in front of us?
Why are Mandi, and 800 others in Canada, and 7000 others in the USA, and countless others around the world, waiting to be saved, when all we had to in the first place was save some blood?
Cord blood can give life – twice.
Her dad says, “Her wedding day is my next special day.”
So, I may not know Mandi the way I knew Matt, but I will eventually know Mandi better than I knew him. Because, if anything, Matt taught me to believe, and I believe Mandi will find a donor and beat cancer.
And then one day I plan to meet this stranger, who has inspired me and so many others. Perhaps when she is a spokesperson for rare cancers, or contributing to the world in whatever significant way she will.
Rick also feels Mandi is destined for something special, “We believe… All of Mandi’s supporters make us believe.”
For now, this ordeal has taught the entire Schwartz family something we all need to learn.
As Mandi’s dad says, “Enjoy life because things can go pretty quickly. Everything was going pretty perfect for us. Mandi should have graduated this year… The draft with Jaden… The boys are both gonna play at Colorado College together…
“Take those special moments and make the best of them and enjoy, because at the end of the day you don’t know how long you have and life can change pretty quickly.”
And in just five to 10 minutes you can become Mandi’s hero.
To learn how, please visit www.becomemandishero.org.
Update: As of September 15th, Mandi's transplant is scheduled for September 22nd, from two umbilical cord blood units.
Update: As of October 24th, Mandi has undergone her transplant, and has been released from the hospital - after fighting her way through another life-threatening condition post-transplant. She will stay in Seattle for daily check-ups, and has already started back at an exercise routine. A fundraising event, "Mandi's March", is set for Saturday November 6th.
Update: As of December 22nd, a biopsy test revealed that Mandi has relapsed once again. A new treatment plan has been offered and she will now participate in a research study with the drug AZACITIDINE. More will be learned as the week progresses. And her family is very thankful for all the support so far.
Update: Last year, on the first Sunday in April Matt Cook lost his battle with cancer. This year, on the first Sunday in April, Mandi Schwartz lost her battle with cancer. When will this end? RIP Mandi.