For college athlete-turned transplant patient, life’s still a ball

dana3The first time a stem cell transplant recipient leaves his or her quarantined hospital room marks a significant milestone. In the case of Dana Mendes, this move toward independence included an additional step: chasing a ball through the hallways with a stick.

For Mendes, 18, it was a return to what she loves. She had been just two days away from her first preseason field hockey practice at Assumption College in August 2015 when a mysterious bout of fatigue was diagnosed as myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). This precancerous condition, in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature to become healthy blood cells, required treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center – including a life-saving stem cell transplant in December 2015.
Dana plays in high school[1]

Recovery time for a transplant recipient can take nearly a year, during which the patient is largely isolated as their new immune system gains strength. For Mendes, this meant delaying her entire freshman year of college while healing at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s and later at home in Merrimack, New Hampshire.

But rather than be discouraged by this setback, Mendes is energized by her faith and an outpouring of support. In the months before her transplant, although she was too weak to play, her coaches listed her on the Assumption team roster and invited her to don her uniform and watch games alongside her teammates. She also helped out the Merrimack High team she once captained, and students at both schools created and sold “Pray For Dana/Fight 4 Dana” bracelets to help defray her medical expenses.

“While I was still in the hospital, people would send me pictures of people wearing the bracelets everywhere,” Mendes says. “My friends would ask them ‘Where did you get that?’ and they’d say, ‘My friend at Assumption told me about this girl who was sick, so I wanted to support her.’ It was very cool.”

Further inspiration came from the Assumption uniform jersey and field hockey stick hanging on Mendes’s hospital room wall, and the “Dana Day” held in her honor on the college’s Worcester campus.

Ever the optimist, Mendes said she relished reconnecting with her two siblings – big sisters Bianca, 20, and Tania, 25, both of whom now live in Arizona and flew in upon getting word of her diagnosis. They have been by Dana’s side continuously, and as a perfect stem cell match for Dana, Bianca became her donor.

Transplants are physically tough on donors as well as recipients. Asked how she handled having two daughters going through the process simultaneously, Dana’s mom Adriana says that “seeing the overwhelming love all three of our girls have for each other has sustained us through this entire journey.”

Her confidence in the face of her challenges is no surprise to Dana’s athletic mentors, who have seen it on and off the field.dana

“What makes Dana stand out is her passion for life,” says Ann MacLean, her coach for four years at Merrimack High. “Her goal is to return, and I know she will.”

Assumption Head Coach Annie Lahey says that it “immediately set a tone for our season: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and commit to each day like it was your last.”

That’s one lesson that Dana Mendes, who these days can be found dribbling a ball across her family’s icy driveway, knows all too well.

Learn more about the Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Stem Cell Transplant Center.

This blog post first appeared in Insight, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s blog.