We have all loved someone with cancer. Everyone either knows someone suffering from cancer or who has died from cancer. What’s worse is when it’s a child with this disease. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent since they opened 50 years ago.
I didn’t know what to expect on my recent visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. I assumed it would be a sad visit. I know cancer. My own father died of cancer. My uncle. My aunt. Other relatives who I have loved. I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t know someone with cancer or who hasn’t had a loved one die from cancer. It affects everyone.
But it’s especially heartbreaking when it affects a child.
And that’s what St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is all about. Eradicating childhood cancer.
I can’t really explain the St. Jude campus. It’s one of those places you have to see to believe. And anyone can; they offer tours. It’s huge, and bright, and amazingly sterile, and cheerful, and carefully art-directed as to make even the smallest kids feel safe and secure while they are undergoing treatment for the most aggressive forms of childhood illnesses imaginable. There are lounge areas and play rooms and a school and bright red wagons that parents can use to transport their kids to appointments when they are just too tired to walk. There’s housing with comfortable and well-appointed apartments and giant playgrounds designed to look like Candyland and huge communal eating areas where families can enjoy healthy and delicious meals with one another. There’s an animation room donated by DreamWorks Studios where patients can watch movies and try their hand at creating their own cartoons.
It’s a beautiful place. And not the place where you would ever want to have to go, but if you did have to go, it’s where you would want to be. There’s no doubt in my mind that the very best medical care can be found at St. Jude. But it’s more than just the excellence of treatment and this is where it gets hard to articulate what it’s really like, because St. Jude is like no other place on earth. There is a feeling there, a sort of vibe you get no matter who you talk to, and I felt it no matter where I was or who I was with, everyone from janitors to oncologists, this steadfast feeling that everyone you encounter at the hospital would do everything in their power to help a child, to make life easier for them, to support them. It’s a tangible sort of energy at St. Jude — and it’s prevalent all over. I have never met so many people so committed to helping kids. It’s like this giant city full of angels. And it’s not just everyone affiliated with the hospital, but with the parents of patients too.
Parents like Michelle, whose son Tyler is 8 years old and has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Tyler who loves video games and has an infectious laugh and who collects beads, a bead for every doctor visit, chemotherapy dosage and appointment he has had in battling his illness.
(Photo credit: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital)
A string of beads almost as long as Tyler is tall. Hearing his amazingly strong and brave and beautiful mom Michelle talk about her son and the care he has received at St. Jude and her hopes for other children waging the same battle with cancer was transformative. And an honor. And that’s the only real way to describe what this experience was like for me.
Thanksgiving week marks the start of the annual St. Jude Thanks + Giving initiative to raise money for the fight against childhood cancer and other diseases. When you are doing your holiday shopping, you can help support St. Jude by either buying select merchandise or making a donation at checkout. You can participate in the St.Jude Give Thanks. Walk. Or you can support someone running in the St. Jude Memphis marathon.
Most of us are lucky. We don’t know what it’s like to have a child like Tyler or one of the many other brave kids I met during my visit. We take for granted what it’s like not to have to worry that our own kids may face an illness like cancer. But St. Jude takes some of this worry away from parents. No parent ever receives a bill from St. Jude. Not for medical care, or transportation, not for food, or housing, or prescriptions, or prosthetics. And your donations make this possible. It’s an amazing, hopeful, incredibly inspiring place, and it’s filled with amazingly inspiring people, both caregivers and patients. I know where heroes live. It’s in Memphis. Here’s hoping they reach their goal of wiping out childhood cancer.