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Danny Thomas didn’t live in the south, but he was determined to put his children’s hospital there. He’d read a story about a little boy in Mississippi who’d been hit by a car while riding his bike, and none of the local emergency rooms would treat him because he was black. The boy died. Danny Thomas carried the newspaper clipping in his wallet for years.
Thomas was the child of Lebanese immigrants, and nobody he knew ever went to hospitals. He and his nine siblings were born at home without the help of doctors or hospitals. Children in his neighborhood died of the flu and simple infections, and he knew that wasn’t right.
As he got older and struggled to take care of his pregnant wife with his meager earnings from singing jobs on the radio and in nightclubs, he started to wonder if he was meant to make his mark on the world as an entertainer. He prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. He promised that if St. Jude would help him find his direction, he would build a shrine in the saint’s honor. The very next day he got a job that would pay the hospital bill for the birth of his first child, Margaret.
I heard that story right from his daughter Margaret, known to the world as actress Marlo Thomas. Her sitcom, That Girl, made her a star, and Free to Be…You and Me made her a hero to many young girls. She’ll always hold a special place in my heart as Rachel Green’s mother on Friends. I was thrilled to have lunch with her earlier this month.Did you know that @StJude was the first fully-integrated hospital in the south? #GiveThanks Click To Tweet
As amazing as her acting career has been, she’s doing more important work as the National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded by her father in 1962. “My dad had a front row seat at the inequities of health care. The rich kids went to the doctor, the immigrant kids didn’t” she told me.
Not only did he put the hospital in Jim Crow-era Memphis, he made sure that it was the first fully-integrated hospital in the south – staff and patients. His commitment to equality had a ripple effect in the community as well: when local hotels refused to let the families of black patients stay in their rooms or eat in their restaurants, he told them that the white families wouldn’t stay there either. Many hotels relented and became integrated.
The Thing You Have To Know
St. Jude’s is an amazing place. The research done there has saved lives all over the world. And to make sure that families could focus on their kids getting better, Danny Thomas vowed that everything would be paid for. No patient’s family ever pays for treatment, travel, food, or lodging. What isn’t covered by insurance is paid for by donations.
I just want to repeat that, because the first time I heard it I couldn’t quite process it: treatment, travel, food, and housing are all free to the patients’ families. Some patients have short stays, but others move to Memphis for longer treatments. All paid for. I have to imagine that at a devastating time, that’s a huge burden off of the shoulders of terrified families.Families at @StJude never pay for treatment, travel, food, or housing. #GiveThanks Click To Tweet
I met three of those families at the lunch, and they all spoke about the amazing care they received from St. Jude’s. (And Marlo was right there, asking which doctors they had and about their treatments. This isn’t just something she slaps her name on, she is involved.)
Ali, now a healthy eighth grader, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just a baby. Her father told us how the doctors at St. Jude’s didn’t just treat her disease, they treated her. “It’s not just about surviving cancer, it’s about life. St. Jude does outcomes better than anybody.”
Isabelle, a quiet fifth grader, was diagnosed just this year when a broken leg turned out to be a kind of bone cancer. They drove straight to St. Jude’s, arriving at midnight. Her parents, both veterans, talked about how the doctors talked as much to Isabelle as they did to her parents, instead of just talking about her. That was an experience mentioned by Ali’s father as well. Even though she was just one year old during her stay at St. Jude’s, the doctors addressed themselves to her.
Marleigh, who is just seven years old, was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago. Her mother is a cancer survivor, and she was devastated for her daughter, knowing what she faced. Her cancer is now in remission, but she’s not quite half-way through her treatments. Her mom is grateful for the care Marleigh’s doctors continue to give her. “They have thousands of patients and yet they call every week to make sure Mar is OK.”
It could be any of us
Seeing these girls gave me a flood of emotions that took a few days to shake. Their stories all started with something annoying but seemingly minor: teething problems, a broken leg, headaches. Just two days after our lunch I ended up in the ER with my daughter, because she was having terrible stomach pain and couldn’t stop throwing up. As they ran blood tests and gave her a CT scan, I couldn’t stop my mind from going there. What if it wasn’t something minor? What if it was something life threatening?
Thanks goodness her tests were normal, and she was fine by the next day. But I’m incredibly thankful that there’s a place like St. Jude’s for the kids who are fighting cancer, filled with dedicated doctors and researchers who won’t rest until childhood cancer has a 100% survival rate.
On January 9th Marlo Thomas’s new line of clothing, appropriately called “That Woman,” will go on sale on HSN.com. Marlo herself will be on the Home Shopping Network at 9pm on January 19th to talk about her new venture. Naturally, a portion of the proceeds will go to St. Jude’s.
It was absolutely lovely spending time with Marlo Thomas. The energy she puts into carrying on her father’s dream is humbling. As we close out the year, please consider giving a donation to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Donations are what make St. Jude’s possible. By giving, you could literally be helping to save the lives of kids just like Ali, Isabelle, and Marleigh.