Remembering Mandi Schwartz
There is no need to write about Mandi Schwartz’s death, no information left to give. By now, countless people across the world know the story of her fight with cancer. After a two-and-a-half year battle with acute myeloid leukemia, Mandi died on Sunday, April 3, 2011, at the age of 23.
There is a need, however, to write about Mandi’s life. About the type of person she was, about where she came from, and about what she became. About how her story inspired others to look beyond themselves and to help others. About what her story can teach each one of us. About how one soul can touch so many others. We need to know Mandi, and her life. And maybe, in discovering Mandi, we can somehow find ourselves.
Harry Rosenholz, the former Yale hockey coach who recruited Mandi to Yale, recalls, “When she first got to Yale, she barely spoke to anyone, including her roommate.” It is amazing, considering the scope of Mandi Schwartz’s story, that there are more people in Calhoun College, her residential college at Yale, than in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, where Mandi was born and raised. Part of why she had and has such influence on people, perhaps, is because of this smallness, this inner focus. Her former coach spoke in amazement to this quality: “I don’t know if it’s the cold Saskatchewan winter or the small community she grew up in that formed this inner strength. She had inner strength, inner glow and fortitude.” But Mandi grew to become far more than a shy girl from Saskatchewan. “The real story,” says Rosenholtz, “is how a very, very shy person, from a small town of 300 people, came to Yale, and ended up having the kind of devoted, committed following that Mandi Schwartz did.”
As is the case for many Canadians, hockey was in Mandi’s blood. “Her truest passion was hockey,” says Calhoun master Jonathan Holloway. “The thing you have to understand about Mandi is that she felt most free when she was on the ice. This is where her personality came out and really shined. This is what she lived for in so many ways”, says Rosenholtz. Mandi was always a standout hockey player. Before coming to Yale, she played for her high school team, the Notre Dame Hounds, a powerhouse hockey school in Wilcox. She was not the biggest, the strongest, or the most talented, but she was the hardest worker. She would be the first on the ice at every practice, and served as a role model for the rest of the team. At Yale, she played in 73 consecutive games, scored 28 points, and earned East Coast Athletic Conferene Hockey All-Academic Honors every season.
But Mandi wasn’t just a hockey player. Mandi was the girl who showed up at a freshman hockey player’s room on the first day of Yale so that she would feel welcome. She was the girl who, when the Yale team visited Niagara Falls on a cold, miserable day, and all the other kids wanted to get back on the warm bus, said, “I just can’t believe I’ve been blessed enough to go see Niagara Falls.” She was the girl who friends, teammates and coaches alike describe as passionate, caring, soft-spoken, hard-working, unassuming, humble, and selfless. “The values she stands for are hard work, dedication, caring for one another. Those are things she embodies that we only hope to mirror,” says Samantha MacLean, the captain of the Yale women’s hockey team. Sam Rubin, Assistant Director of Yale Sports Publicity, describes Mandi as “The type of daughter you would want to have, the type of sister you’d want to have, the type of friend you would want to have.”
In Dec. 2008, the middle of her junior year, the diagnosis came. When the team came to the rink for practice on the day she found out, Coach Witt told everyone to gather for a meeting. The team learned that Mandi had leukemia, and they went directly from practice to Mandi’s room and started packing her stuff up. Initially, the team struggled to cope. “It’s not like the movies when things like this happen. It’s real life, everyone deals with it differently, and has to find a way to cope,” says Hilary Witt, the former Yale Women’s Hockey coach.
But her teammates were confident that Mandi could overcome anything thrown her way. “We all knew that Mandi was going to win this battle, because she was the hardest worker and the strongest person,” says one of Mandi’s teammates, Lili
On Mandi’s Facebook page, under her favorite quotes, she wrote, “Struggle and Emerge”—her high school’s motto. And that’s precisely what she did. After almost a year at home struggling with chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. She emerged back at Yale on Jan. 8, 2010. Instead of being bitter, Mandi came back even more positive and friendly than before. “She came back, and she was so funny. She’d drop one-liners and was just so funny,” says Mandi’s former linemate, Aleca Hughes. And then, in April, disaster struck again. Mandi found out that her cancer had returned, and had to leave school for the second time.
This time, her team understood that in order to beat the cancer once and for all, Mandi would need a bone marrow or stem cell donor for a transplant. They wasted no time in starting to help the girl who cared only for others. “You have to give the team credit. Instead of feeling bad for themselves, they tried to do whatever they could to help Mandi,” says Witt.
The team helped organize a bone marrow drive last spring. Rubin concedes that finding a match was “like finding a needle in a haystack. But if you have enough people looking, you can find that needle.” Though the fight was tough, everyone involved knew that if Mandi wouldn’t give up, neither would they. “She kept fighting, so we knew that we needed to keep fighting,” says Rubin. Teammates, friends, and strangers in both the United States and Canada organized marrow drives. “You feel like you’re in a family when you’re a hockey player in Canada. In the hockey world, a family member got sick,” says Witt.
Her story got picked up by the Associated Press and ESPN, where an editor “understood you don’t just write about this story yourself—you tell other people. This was the type of story you could print, put on the air, and it could save somebody’s life. And it’s not too often you come across a story like that,” says Rubin. From the grassroots effort, the world began to take notice. “People would hear her, would come up with some way to help, just do it, and sometimes we never heard about it. I definitely would not want any of this to come across as if we were doing as individuals something extraordinary. We’re ordinary people. And through Mandi, we realized how much ordinary people can accomplish when they work together,” says Rubin.
People like Lexy Adams, a Yale sophomore from Lancaster, Penn., who, thanks to Mandi and the bone marrow drive last spring, found out that she was a match and ended up donating bone marrow over winter break to an anonymous recipient she may never meet. Although Adams never met Mandi, “We shared the athlete bond. When I heard about how she was diagnosed her sophomore year, I couldn’t imagine going through that this year,” says Adams. “Her story just blows my mind with how passionate she was about her team and Yale. I wouldn’t have known about it [the bone marrow drive]. I wouldn’t have done it without her.” Reflecting on Mandi, Adams echoes a sentiment that countless supporters have posted on Facebook walls and online message boards in support of Mandi: “I feel like I knew her even though I never met her.”
And then there were people like me. I never knew Mandi. I know a number of her friends and teammates, but I was never fortunate enough to meet her. But when I heard her story, I reacted just like countless others did. I guess what struck me might have been the fact that we seemed so similar—two hockey-loving Canadian kids who somehow found their way to Yale. But more than that, it was the idea that a classmate of mine was suffering and that there was something I could do to try and help. So when I was home at the beginning of the summer, I did my best to take up Mandi’s cause. I got in touch with doctors and hospitals, and eventually succeeding in getting an OB/GYN at one of Toronto’s largest hospitals to distribute flyers with information about donating cord blood. As Rubin puts it, “She showed us how important and also how simple it is just to help a fellow human being.”
Yet despite the best efforts of countless people, the cancer would not be defeated, and the disease finally took Mandi this past Sunday. No death is ever easy to deal with. But Mandi’s is particularly difficult to come to terms with because of her story. How hard she struggled. How unlikely it seemed that this would ever happen to her, of all people. “She was so full of life and so healthy. After hard practices, we’d always just gorge ourselves in the dining hall. Mandi would make the healthiest sandwich, sprouts popping out everywhere. I think it’s hard because she did everything right. She stayed healthy, she ate healthy, she took care of her body, didn’t abuse it,” says Rudis.
How will Mandi be remembered? She will be remembered as the sweet young woman from Wilcox, Saskatchewan, who ended up at Yale and inspired so many people. Rosenholtz thinks that what was truly special about Mandi was the way “she captured all of our hearts. It’s because she was so true and such a good person. Spend ten minutes with Mandi, and it would change your life. I’ve been touched by an angel, and I’m not alone. I know that a lot of other people were too.”
Plans are well under way to start a foundation in Mandi’s honor—something she was really excited about—with the hope that one day, “It’ll be a huge non-profit supporting awareness. Hopefully, it will be big enough to support bone marrow donation, umbilical cord donations. It’s definitely going to be awesome,” says Hughes.
Though she is no longer there, Yale will not forget Mandi. Mandi was remembered when the Yale Campus participated in the Relay for Life on Apr. 15-16, raising approximately $75,000 for the American Cancer Society . She was remembered when the Mandi Schwartz Bone Marrow Drive occurred on April 21, where almost 900 people registered for the Be the Match Registry. Before the day of the drive, Rubin acknowledged how difficult it would be to hold the event with Mandi gone. “As tough as that’s going to be, we know how much that will mean for her family, and how much it would have meant for her to see a huge turnout on that day,” says Rubin. “She was such a fun-loving person, and I think she was truly humbled and honored by how many people were following her story. By giving back, by also being a loving person, those are the ways to honor her,” says Hughes.
Perhaps Rosenholtz puts everything in perspective best: “There’s this kid that came from Wilcox, Saskatchewan, to Yale, and left this mark that’s as great as some of the great minds and the great people who have ever taught at Yale. Maybe people don’t realize it yet, but they’re going to. I think it’s just an amazing journey.”
And though Mandi’s life is over, her journey is not. Thanks to the efforts of all those who became a part of her struggle, she will live on. She will live on in the lives she touched. She will live on in the blood of the transplant recipients for whom her bone marrow drive found matches, in the minds of those who were inspired by her story, in the hearts of her mother, Carol, father, Rick, brothers, Jaden and Rylan, and fiancée, Kaylem Prefontaine. She will live on in me. She will live on in you.