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Publish date: Sep 23, 2010

Yale ice hockey student-athlete receives stem cell transplant

By Sam Rubin

Mandi Schwartz (left) shares a moment with Stefani Wachter of the Western Washington Female Hockey Association's Phoenix. The Phoenix presented her with a No. 17 jersey after a recent game

The long wait is over for Mandi Schwartz, who received the stem cell transplant she needs to beat cancer Wednesday afternoon.

The procedure, which lasted 32 minutes, took place at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s inpatient transplant unit at the University of Washington Medical Center. With her immune system wiped out by chemotherapy and radiation, Schwartz must remain in the hospital and be closely monitored. The next major milestone for her is “engraftment” – the process in which transplanted stem cells begin to grow in her bone marrow and manufacture new blood cells and immune cells. That signifies the birth of Schwartz’s new immune system and should happen within a month.

The transplant procedure was similar to a transfusion. The stem cells were placed in Schwartz’s body through a vein, and they will now find their way to her bone marrow to create new blood cells and immune cells.

Wednesday’s procedure capped a whirlwind 10-day span. Until receiving the results of a biopsy on Sept. 13, it was unclear whether Schwartz would be cleared for the transplant. She had battled a series of infections, but when the biopsy results that day indicated that she was still in remission, her medical team acted quickly to condition for the transplant. The radiation treatment began Sept. 14 and was followed by chemotherapy.

Schwartz has been battling acute myeloid leukemia for nearly two years, and her story has been chronicled nationally, including on The stem cell transplant essentially gives her the new blood and immune system she needs to survive. Stem cells have the ability to change into any of the body’s cell types. In Schwartz’s case, they will be used to give her new blood cells and new immune cells. Her current immune system, along with the cancerous cells, has been eliminated by chemotherapy and radiation. She will require many transfusions for red blood cells and platelet cells as she recovers.

Complete recovery of Schwartz’s new immune system takes about a year but could take longer if she develops any complications as a result of the transplant. After the transplant, she will be monitored regularly through blood tests to confirm that new blood cells are being produced. She will spend several months in Seattle before she can return to her home in Saskatchewan.

Before the transplant, Schwartz wrote her Yale women’s ice hockey teammates, who have been among her most active supporters.

“I'm praying every day for everything to work out, and I know you all are thinking about me and praying for me − thank you very much − your support means the world to me,” she wrote. “I think about the team, your workouts, the busy school day, and the beautiful feeling of stepping out onto that ice every day.”

While Schwartz continues to battle, the hockey community world-wide continues to rally around her cause. This weekend marks the first annual Mandi Schwartz Challenge at the Co-operators Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan. This tournament will see Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s Provincial Under-18 teams competing along with the Universities of Alberta, Regina and Saskatchewan. Schwartz once played for Team Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Hockey Association, along with the University of Regina, will be holding a silent auction throughout the weekend with all funds raised from the auction going to Schwartz and her family. There will be no charge for the games; however, there will be a place to make donations.

Sam Rubin is assistant sports information director at Yale.