A hospital whose mission is to cure children’s catastrophic diseases is not only providing treatment, but also conducting research and making new medicines. Now, in addition to improving its patient-care and research capabilities, it plans to reach into low-income countries to help cure more children with cancer.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was the product of a prayer, and now, for many families, it’s the answer to one.
The Memphis, Tennessee hospital has one mission, which is to cure children of catastrophic diseases. It accomplishes that by conducting laboratory research and sharing data with outside researchers to help advance the pace of science. And, of course, it treats children, in many cases through clinical trials with medicine discovered and made onsite.
But the kernel of an idea that led to the hospital’s creation is still at the heart of everything that happens at St. Jude: providing help to families that have nowhere else to turn.
As scientists conduct cutting-edge research at the facility, parents pull their children in red wagons through patient wards decorated according to themes, complete with fanciful furniture and sounds effects of space, the jungle or the sea. An imagine room offers videos and video games on a floor-to-ceiling screen. Therapy dogs are brought in for the children to snuggle. There’s an outdoor butterfly wall, a teen art gallery and a gigantic work of art made entirely of sequins.
“Children and families are at the center of everything,” James Downing, M.D., president and CEO of St. Jude, explained during a recent tour of the facility for members of the media. “Children are the purpose, and everyone in the organization knows that mission, and that what they do matters.”
A State-of-the-Art Effort
St Jude treats 7,820 children each year on its 65-acre campus, about a third of them from outside the Memphis area. Seventy percent of those treated have cancer; 15 percent have nonmalignant blood diseases, such as sickle cell anemia; and another 15 percent have infectious diseases, including HIV and flu. St. Jude has just 85 inpatient rooms but owns and operates more than 300 housing units for patients and their families — some on campus and some off, for shorter and longer-term stays — preferring this to extended inpatient care that interferes with family life. The facility has the world’s highest rate of patients enrolled in clinical trials, with 60 percent participating.
While St. Jude bills health insurance for care, it never charges a patient or family for treatment, lodging, transportation or food.
“We lose money on every single patient,” Downing said. “Other hospitals can’t do that, but we proudly lose money on every patient and probably spend twice as much on them as other hospitals spend.”
Seventy percent of the hospital’s funding comes from donations, most from small donors, although numerous corporate sponsors also help to keep it growing and functioning. As a result, St. Jude is the largest health care-related charity in the United States and invests in pediatric research at level similar to that of the National Cancer Institute, Downing said.
Other efforts also distinguish St. Jude as a leader in pediatric treatment and research:
New Projects on the Horizon
In addition to these projects, St. Jude is launching new efforts, both globally and locally:
St. Jude opened its doors in 1962 after a decade of work by entertainer Danny Thomas to launch it. As a young performer, when Thomas was having trouble finding work, he’d prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes, saying, “Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine.”
Soon after, Thomas rose to stardom in radio, film and television, and he stayed true to his promise. He brought together a group of Memphis businessmen to build the hospital, and they came up with the mission that continues to guide it today.
It was Thomas who was determined to make treatment there free. He and his wife, Rose Marie, traveled all over the country speaking about the proposed hospital and asking for support. In addition, Thomas asked fellow Arabic Americans to help raise funds to run it, seeing the effort as a way for them to thank the United States for welcoming their parents into the country as immigrants. Out of that effort arose American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), which raises hundreds of millions of dollars for the hospital each year.
Thomas died in 1991, but he has not been forgotten. On display in the hospital are works by cartoonists who, upon his death, heralded Thomas for his efforts on behalf of St. Jude.
And in a hospital common area sits a bust of Thomas’ head, bronzed everywhere except for its shiny, gold nose.
Throughout each day, people stop there to make the nose a bit shinier. The tradition has less to do with science than with pure, simple hope: According to hospital lore, rubbing Thomas’ nose is a sure way to bring good luck.