Posted by Viji Venkatesh on August 02, 2011
Work took a few of us to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis this June. Earlier this year, I had been reading about the contribution to cancer research and care from this institution in what has now become a sort of Bible in my Cancer Book Shelf – The Emperor of all Maladies.
As in every other page of the book; as with everything else Dr. Mukherjee wrote about that began to make such vivid mind pictures in my consciousness, so it was with St Jude. When he wrote about Memphis in the early sixties “being convulsed with bitter racial tension and rock and roll music “, it was the Memphis I already knew about; fan and aficionado that I was of Rock n Roll and the King Elvis Presley. Memphis was for long identified as that turbulent spot with the “gold and pink of Graceland mansion in its South and the starkly segregated black neighborhoods in its north”.
Dr. Mukherjee was telling the tale of a young, impassioned oncologist; the 36 year old Donald Pinkel who had decided to look at experimenting with a regimen of high dose chemotherapy and brought his leukemia trial on 36 little patients to this town that was “turbulent, unpredictable, perennially warm and medically speaking a no man’s land”. But Pinkel was sure of what he wanted to do and even more sure that he would succeed – he was going to push high dose combination therapy to its extreme and see how the little ones who seemed to have no chance at all be given some ray of hope to live.
The year was 1961 and when Pinkel arrived there, the hospital “rose like a marooned starfish out of a concrete parking lot on a barren filed”. Apparently, the hospital was still an unfinished building and barely functional with no track record, no finances, no employees, and not enough faculty.
Something about the struggle those little ones were going through and the manic efforts on the part of the young Pinkel to give them a glimmer of hope and the most unlikely setting portrayed in the book tugged at my conscience and it felt good to read that eventually there was a great measure of success in the trial . I did some fact finding about St Jude for I was very intrigued about a children’s facility being built in the heart of nowhere. All I knew was that St Jude was the patron Saint of Hopeless Causes and that seemed a bit like throwing the towel in already. As I did the research a most heartwarming story enfolded.
Danny Thomas a little known night club entertainer, was struggling to make a go of it in show business. His family was growing and he was barely earning enough to get by. A stagehand had once confided in him that his prayers to St Jude had saved his wife from cancer and he too prayed for strength to succeed in his profession and promised he would “do something big” in Jude’s name if he managed to gain a measure of economic security.
He did find tremendous success and popularity and it is said that in the midst of his newly-found professional success, he had completely forgotten his earlier prayers and promises to Saint Jude. But it was not for long and it was this Hollywood star’s renewed devotion to St Jude that was responsible for his gifting the country the now world-famous St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. A shrine to St Jude and a hospital for needy children, a place where they would be cared for regardless of race, religion or ability to pay - a hospital where no suffering child would be turned away.
When I was invited, along with my colleagues from The Max Foundation to attend and present at their soon to be held conference I knew it was not just a coincidence but as Danny Thomas himself once spoke about how he believed the saint helped him ‘It was like a miracle, the way it happened,’ he said. ‘You believe in miracles, don’t you?’”
We were lucky to have some time away from the conference to meet with some of the most wonderful people who work in the hospital and see the hospital for ourselves: the wards, the waiting areas, the in house school and recreation facilities for the patients and care givers and the memorial to Danny Thomas. Every corridor, every nook and corner and the whole campus seemed to be suffused with a warm and compassionate light. Utmost care was taken to protect the patients from the well meaning but curious attention of visitors but their courage and determination to combat the challenge they were facing was evident everywhere. The walls had some endearing art work signed by the young artists portraying many milestones of their monumental journey adding to the positive energies we all felt. I share with you my dear colleagues some excerpts from the St Jude ABCs of Cancer – a book I am so happy I picked up at their gift shop; a book that has allowed me to glimpse into those brave little minds full of positive thinking and generosity of spirit in the midst of their great personal hardship and a world that is seemingly crumbling around them.
L is for Lucky
I am lucky for many things
I am lucky I survived my brain tumor
I am lucky my Mom found St Jude’s
I am lucky St Jude’s is the best hospital
By Christian - age9
V is for Vida (life)
Life is a learning experience
That teaches us to face
Difficult moments with bravery
And to appreciate the beautiful moments
That life brings to us
I love Life and for that reason I am happy
By Grace - age 6
S is for St Jude
Sickle Cell makes you sad
St Jude makes you glad
Sickle cell makes you cry
St Jude makes you fly
Sickle Cell needs a cure
St Jude will find one for sure
By Courtney - age 7
Sickle Cell disease
J is for St Jude
St Jude makes me Jump for Joy
I love the Jukebox
I enjoy St Jude
By Abigail - age 6
A is for ALIVE
All the shots I had to get that made me cry,
And all of that nasty medicine that me
Sick, it was all worth it because I am ALIVE
Thank you St Jude
By Asia - age 10