As a student at USC, Falicia Mandel was a consummate Trojan. She enjoyed the classes, the football and, more than anything, the camaraderie she shared with other students.
Now, she’s hoping that camaraderie can help save her father’s life.
Less than a year after her graduation last May, Mandel’s father, 60-year-old Joseph Mandel, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells. The condition requires him to receive a stem cell transplant, but none of his family members is a match.
In fact, matches are rare — only about one random person out of 20,000 will be a suitable donor. But Falicia is hoping one of the 35,000 students at USC could be the one.
A lifelong L.A. resident who works for JPMorgan Chase & Co., Joe will celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary this year and has two children, 22-year-old Falicia and 26-year-old Mark Mandel.
Since learning of the diagnosis, Falicia said she and her family have reached out to anyone they can find.
“I contacted everybody I could think of because it’s really life or death,” she said. “You can’t have any humility. You can’t be shy. The bottom line is my father has one year to find a match and receive a transplant. It’s so scary that the chance of finding a match is so slim.”
Joe’s relatives have been tested, but there is only a 25 percent chance a sibling’s stem cells will match. His older and younger sister match each other but not him, he said. His 91-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor, cannot donate either.
Younger people, such as college students, make better donors because they are less likely to have health complications or previous surgeries, and transfusions of their cells are more likely to be successful, Joe said.
In the search for a match, Falicia said USC seemed like a natural place to turn.
“I had built a strong relationship with many students on campus,” she said. “There’s always this whole stress at USC that we’re a family. You’re a Bruin for four years but a Trojan for life. I felt if there was any way to get a large turnout it was through USC.
“Knowing the school and faculty and how students are … You see students fighting for each other every day, and that’s what I was looking for.”
Like his daughter, Joe is a staunch Trojan fan who said he never misses a football game on TV.
He said the response from USC has been tremendous.
“It’s so nice to see the Trojan family step up to the plate because there are others that have not,” he said.
Joe said he was impressed by the work his daughter has done to help find a match.
“It’s not an easy thing,” he said. “She’s doing everything in her power to be there for me and help to save my life.”
He also praised the school, both for welcoming his daughter and for supporting him.
“When Falicia went there the first semester, I saw the family that was there and said, ‘I sure wish I’d been able to go to a school like USC,’” said Joe, who attended Cal State Northridge.
Falicia arranged the drive through the City of Hope Cancer Center, where her father is being treated.
“Tell them the time, date and the place, and they just show up ready to do testing,” she said.
At USC, she has found support from organizations including USC Chabad, which will assist in organizing the drive.
“It’s important to be there and help in any way we can. She’s a member of our community,” said Rabbi Dov Wagner, the director of the Chabad Jewish Center. “The highest possible ideal is the opportunity to save a life.”
He said USC has held drives before but never for one individual.
“In the past, it wasn’t for anyone specific, just getting people into the registry,” he said. “Having a specific emphasis makes it that much more urgent.”
The drive will be held Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Trousdale Parkway.
Both the test and the donation itself are relatively minor procedures. The DNA is tested with a cheek swab, while a stem cell transfusion, which is similar to donating blood, can be done on the donor’s schedule.
“You get people who come up and go, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want anyone cutting me open.’ But it’s not a surgery,” Joe said. “It’s painless for them. The effort for them is minimal, and they’re saving someone’s life. They may not be a match for me, but they could be a match for someone else.”
All tested students will go into a registry and could potentially assist others. While students with Eastern-European Jewish ancestry are more likely to be a match for Joe, other ethnic minorities are also underrepresented in the registry, making it hard for those patients to find transfusions.
“We have to do everything we can to find a match, if not for him, for someone else,” Wagner said. “It’s a great opportunity to help and show support that doesn’t cost anything.”
Joe said he hopes several hundred students will come but would appreciate if any students came to be tested.
“We’ve had other drives, and you get 40 to 50 people, but it’s 40 to 50 people we didn’t have before,” he said.
Falicia said she was grateful for the support she had already received.
“This is a very desperate situation for the entire family, and it’s easier to go through this situation knowing that very rarely do you have to beg someone to help you,” she said.
She urged students to take the time to get tested, saying that she would do the same.
“I would do it for them. I and my brother would do it for them. It’s really not a lot to do, and it’s something that is necessary,” she said. “We’re hoping there’s a match out there.”