Four Things African-Americans Should Know About St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

by Ebonie Johnson Cooper

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Me with the other St. Jude Bloggers getting ready to serve families at the Memphis Grizzlies House.

I had the opportunity to visit the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at the beginning of May as part of the St. Jude Blogger program. There was so much I learned and so much I felt; it would take me at least three blog posts to write about it but I won’t bore you. But, there is one strong connection piece during my visit that truly made a difference: the influence and impact the hospital has had on the black community. I was not prepared to learn just how much St. Jude and its founder, Danny Thomas, have helped to change the lives of so many black children and their families. Again, I could go on and on but here are my top four things African-Americans should know about St. Jude:

1. They Are Social Justice Pioneers

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The Danny Thomas statue at St. Jude

America just celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education. If you’ve been keeping up with black history, you know that that case sparked the change within the educational system during a time when change for black people wasn’t popular. While change was not what the masses wanted at that time, it was happening – and it kept happening. Eight years after Brown vs. the Board of Education actor and comedian Danny Thomas opened the doors to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The hospital is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other deadly diseases. Since cancer does not discriminate, Danny Thomas said he would treat all children, and that’s what he meant; making St. Jude the first integrated hospital in the south during segregation. When surrounding hotels in Memphis would not allow black families to stay, Danny Thomas said, “If you don’t take one of my patient families, you will take none of them.” That forced hotels in the area to integrate long before it was acceptable, plus it motivated St. Jude to open its very own housing facilities- which by the way are AWESOME! It was pioneering like this that perked up my ears  to hear just how else St. Jude has changed lives in the black community.

2. They Make Mac N’ Cheese Worthy of Your Grandmama’s Table

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These are the Sour Gems not the mac n’ cheese. Lol.

We all know what mac n cheese means to the black community. It’s the glue that holds us together or the catalyst for holiday dinner disaster if the wrong person makes it. Well at St. Jude, it’s the yummy goodness that keep patients (and families) happy.

During our blogger tour we learned that patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital often don’t have much of an appetite and or can be quite picky while undergoing treatment – yet they need important nutrients. In addition to having patients taste veggies and herbs from the on-site garden, the culinary staff prepare meals custom to fit the diets and tastes of the in-patients. One day a patient insisted on having his grandmother’s mac n’ cheese. Instead of convincing him to try something else, a member of the St. Jude culinary staff got on the phone, called the grandmother and got the recipe. Secretly replacing a few not so healthy ingredients with nutrient- rich ones, the staff recreated the grandmother’s famous dish to the satisfaction of the patient. The mac n’ cheese was so good, it got placed on the menu in the Kay Kafe and families and staff members are able to enjoy it! This isn’t just a one time occurrence, making children happy is what they do at St. Jude. They’ve even created Sour Gems, a “small in portion, fun in shape, tart in taste” nutritious treat for patients as chemotherapy often makes sweet foods unbearable. My point is St. Jude makes nutrition a priority for its patients, and lucky for so many mac n’ cheese is one of those healthy items. 🙂 Check out the recipe!

3. The Kappas Have a Wall at St. Jude & St. Jude Loves Elephants

10325163_10100799612626793_1904444934194540380_nAll of the walls in the hospital at St. Jude are colorful and covered with scenes of the seasons with kids and families. As we toured the hospital, I kept getting wrapped up in the stories being told on the walls, especially the one featuring Kappa Alpha Psi! As a young black philanthropist, I knew the fraternal organization must have made great strides for St. Jude in order to have a wall dedicated to them. As a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., I was simply elated to see my fellow PanHell brothers representing! I later learned that in 2005, the Kappas named St. Jude as its philanthropic partner and launched Sunday of Hope. Sunday of Hope is a program that encourages churches across the country to unite as a body of believers to help children suffering from pediatric cancer, sickle cell and other deadly diseases. Members of Kappa Alpha Psi will reach out to churches in their local communities to host a Sunday of Hope during the month of January in support of St. Jude. During the Sunday of Hope, churches will take up a special offering in honor of the patients and families of St. Jude. To date the organization has raised more than $400,000—representing the largest contribution that Kappa Alpha Psi has ever donated to charity. (source) Sunday of Hope now runs March through June. If you know of a church or you would like to get involved in the Sunday of Hope program, contact sundayofhope@stjude.org. 10320523_10100799611938173_5357224398853963159_n

And yes, the elephant is the official mascot of Target House. Elephants represent good luck, and they have a great memory. So hey, they made a great decision as far as I’m concerned. 🙂 Plus when they opened they had a number of celebrities color in elephants to put on the walls. And guess who did one? YES, Auntie Oprah!

Target House is St. Jude’s long-term housing facility for families staying more than 90 days. It is an innovative facility located near St. Jude that gives patients and families a home-away-from-home while undergoing treatment. Each apartment has two bedrooms, kitchen, bath and living room, and is fully furnished and equipped with cooking utensils, linens, flat screen TV and a DVD player. There is no cost to families staying at Target House – or any housing facility at St. Jude. How dope is that?!

4. St. Jude Saves Our Children’s Lives 

10320605_10100799612566913_4306636114223811027_nAbout 11,630 children age 14 and younger are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year. One in 300 boys and one in 333 girls will develop cancer before their 20th birthday. While not a form of childhood cancer, sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder that affects the hemoglobin within the red blood cells and it disproportionately affects African Americans. In the United States, approximately one in 375 African-Americans is born with sickle cell disease each year. I remember growing up with a neighborhood friend, Ashley, who had sickle cell disease. I didn’t understand it fully as a child; all I knew was that she had sickle cell, her blood cells were shaped like C’s instead of circles, she got to do Make-a-Wish and she would be sick from time to time. She was my friend and as long as she got better and we could play, I was good. 

While at St. Jude, we met the most adorable 13-year-old during our final dinner. I love little black kids with freckles so she was an instant heartwarmer for me. But to see her smile and listen to her speak with such joy was simply the best. We learned that her battle with sickle cell began before she was even born, but her mother refused to let it hinder her. Today she undergoes Hydroxyurea and hasn’t had an episode in two years! St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has one of the largest and most active Sickle Cell Disease Programs in the nation. St. Jude treats approximately 800 children per year with sickle cell disease.  The hospital has several labs, which perform various research on sickle cell disease. These labs perform basic science and translational research. Basic science involves theoretical research which is conducted in the lab. Translational research brings the research from the lab to the patient. Bone marrow (or stem cell) transplantation is the only cure for sickle cell disease. The cure was first performed successfully in 1983, when a St. Jude patient with leukemia and sickle cell disease received a bone marrow transplant. The procedure cured both diseases. (source) They rarely perform this procedure because a perfect bone marrow match is so rare and the complications are risky but progress St. Jude makes in helping patients live with sickle cell, pain-free, is phenomenal!

Me during our patient care session. St. Jude uses "make your own dolls" like this to teach kids about their treatments.
Me during our patient care session. St. Jude uses “make your own dolls” like this to teach kids about their treatments.

Day in and day out St. Jude works to discover cures for sickle cell and other childhood cancers. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since it opened 50 years ago. The daily operating cost for St. Jude is $1.9 million, which is primarily covered by individual contributors. YES, $1.9 million a DAY! The average donation of $30 from an individual keeps the hospital going. Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food – because they believe all families should have to worry about is helping their child live.

Now do you see why I love St. Jude?

On our last day during the blogger tour, the St. Jude team asked all of us to wear the branded polos they gave us in our tote bags. Who hates polos? Ebonie does. But hey, when in Rome… so I wore it. We looked like a pack of Girl Scouts as we ate at the famous Arcade Restaurant and toured the National Civil Rights Museum but that was all right. When I arrived to the airport to check in, that’s when it finally hit me. “Thank you for saving kids lives,” a man said to me. I looked around, trying to figure out who he was talking to. Then I looked down at my polo. “You saved my friend’s life as a kid. Thank you,” he said as he walked away. I started to tell him I was just a blogger for St. Jude, not a doctor. But then, I paused and smiled. It hit me in that moment just how much St. Jude means to so many people. I couldn’t help but hold my head just a little higher knowing that I am now a part of the St. Jude family and can do my small part to help continue to save the lives of children.

Thank you Angela, Aisha and Kristen for this opportunity. I look forward to building together!

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Check out pictures from my visit via Facebook! 

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