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VOL. 127 | NO. 5 | Monday, January 09, 2012

‘No Place Like It’

St. Jude celebrates 50 years of treating childhood cancer

By Aisling Maki

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Actor and philanthropist Danny Thomas’ dream of a day when no child would die in the dawn of life continues to be the driving force behind St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which this year marks its 50th anniversary.

Dr. Alberto Pappo of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital works with a patient. The hospital, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, has helped dramatically improve childhood cancer survival rates. (Photo: Peter Barta/St. Jude Biomedical Communications)

When the nonprofit facility opened its doors in 1962, pediatric childhood cancer survival rates were just 20 percent. Childhood cancer survival rates today are more than 80 percent, largely thanks to the work of St. Jude, said Emily Callahan, chief marketing officer for ALSAC, St. Jude’s fundraising arm.

Survival rates for leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, stood at just 4 percent when St. Jude opened. Today, survival rates stand at 94 percent.

“It’s remarkable when you reflect on when St. Jude opened and truly, even today, there’s no place like it,” Callahan said. “We were the first place to combine research and patient care all under one roof, so you could take those discoveries you made in the lab right to the patient and make a life-saving difference.”

Realizing Thomas’ dream, the Memphis-based hospital treats children from around the world who’ve been diagnosed with childhood cancer and other catastrophic illnesses, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

“No one else has our model, where no family ever pays St. Jude for anything,” Callahan said. “We fly them here, and we pay for their housing, food, transportation. So, it’s the world’s best care with the latest treatments, and no family ever pays for that.”

Thomas was celebrated in Los Angeles this weekend with a star-studded gala – headlined by Tony Bennett, Ray Romano and Phil Donahue – marking what would have been his 100th birthday. It was the kickoff to a number of events this year celebrating St. Jude’s successes in the fight against childhood cancer.

“We have some new events this year, but we’re also taking a lot of our existing events that we do around the country – things that are big and meaningful for us – and start to tie them to the 50th or add a new element that we plan to continue moving forward,” Callahan said.

The organization hopes to ramp up the annual FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament, which will attract some of the world’s best golfers to Memphis in June.

“We’re doing everything we can to add more fun and relevancy to that event to encourage people to come out,” Callahan said.

She said country music star and St. Jude supporter John Rich and friends are planning a concert that will take place at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Memphis. Other local events will include a weekend-long Friends and Family Celebration in Memphis that will feature a 50th anniversary dinner and gala; the “St. Jude Give thanks. Walk,” a family event that will take place in the fall; Survivors’ Day in September; and a scientific symposium in October, which will bring together current and former St. Jude physicians and researchers from around the world.

Callahan said the hospital will host some type of celebration almost weekly with events tied to the anniversary.

“We can commemorate scientific and treatment advances that we’ve made, celebrate the achievements people have made, and also encourage and inspire people to continue to move forward with us and support us in the future,” she said. “It’s really important that we don’t just look back, but we’re also getting people involved in moving forward.”

St. Jude has made tremendous scientific advances over the past half-century.

“People often call the lifesaving work that occurs at St. Jude every day a miracle,” Marlo Thomas, national outreach director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, said in a statement. “But these are not miracles. This is about medical research rooted in rock-solid science. St. Jude is not just a children’s hospital. What distinguishes us is that we are a research and treatment center under one roof – dedicated to the study of cancer and other catastrophic diseases in children. And that is the miracle: that my father and his founding physicians and scientists made that their mission from the start … .”

Despite the world-renowned hospital’s presence in Memphis, many Memphians have not seen the facility for themselves, and Callahan hopes the 50th anniversary will encourage many to take guided tours of the hospital – available to members of the public ages 16 and over.

“There’s still a good portion of the Memphis community that has not directly or personally experienced St. Jude, but I hope all take pride in knowing that the crown jewel in pediatric cancer sits right here in their local community,” Callahan said. “And obviously, there was the incredible foresight and innovation and gumption the city had to make sure that this institution was placed here. I hope that we can help all people in this city tell the story of St. Jude and feel a sense of pride that this is in their community.”

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