The impact of St. Jude

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Danny Thomas with Donald Pinkel, MD, the first CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Hospital founder Danny Thomas peers through a microscope as Donald Pinkel, MD, the first director and CEO of St. Jude, looks on.

Innovation has been a hallmark of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since before the hospital opened.

Danny Thomas and the men and women helping him build St. Jude originally envisioned a general pediatric hospital that would be built in Memphis, Tennessee. Then they stopped to take harder look at their plans. They determined that a research facility studying disorders such as leukemia and sickle cell—diseases that were killing children and for which there was no cure—would not only better serve the community but also children all over the world.

And this research hospital would not charge families for its services. Instead, St. Jude would rely on donations and volunteers from across the country and around the world to ensure that a child battling cancer would receive the best care in the world and at no cost.

In another ground-breaking move, St. Jude was the first hospital in the Memphis area where white and African-American children were treated in the same room. It also featured integrated dining rooms and bathroom facilities.

When the designated hotel for St. Jude patients told hospital staff that only white families would be welcome to stay, Donald Pinkel, MD, the first director and CEO of St. Jude, held firm. Either the hotel accepted all of the patients or St. Jude would find a facility that would.  

Under one roof
St. Jude also pioneered the concept of putting doctors and scientists all under one roof integrating basic research scientists and physicians to work quickly to translate laboratory discoveries into cures. It was this model that helped St. Jude improve the survival rates for the most common childhood cancer—acute lymphoblastic leukemia—from 4 percent when the hospital opened, to 94 percent today. This process has allowed St. Jude to make many key discoveries and has helped build the hospital’s reputation into what it is today.

And with the various disciplines working under one roof—and alongside the patients they are helping—the work of St. Jude staff takes on new meaning. Diseases are not viewed in the abstract but are seen as the patients who are battling them.

Impact on nutrition
St. Jude had a major impact on children’s nutrition in the United States. In the early 1970s, St. Jude physicians set up a volunteer clinic to provide health care to some of the poorer areas of Memphis. At the clinic, the doctors made a startling discovery: Many members of the community were malnourished. Pinkel declared that malnutrition was indeed a catastrophic disease and started a study to research it. The study found that a child’s growth pattern was established in the first six months of life. This discovery led to the establishment of a food program in Memphis for children and expectant mothers.

When Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota happened to see a local TV station documentary about the program, his interest piqued. He initiated legislation to change the Child Nutrition Act using data supplied by St. Jude. This led to the creation of the WIC (Women, Infant and Children) program that serves 53 percent of the infants born in the United States today.

Nutrition is also an important part of treating children with cancer and other deadly diseases. But kids undergoing treatment don’t always feel like eating at the regular breakfast, lunch and dinner times.

For that reason, St. Jude allows children staying at the hospital to have the option to order food to be brought to their rooms at any time of day. And if they’re craving something not on the menu, hospital staff will do everything they can to provide what the child wants.

Creating a home away from home
Although St. Jude tries to make hospital stays as pleasant as possible, the staff attempts to promote a sense of normalcy by minimizing the amount of time that children spend in the hospital. For that reason, most children are treated on an outpatient basis. 

Activity rooms filled with toys, games and computers are available to help pass the time during hospital appointments, allowing patients to play and interact with others. If an out-of-town family is required to be in Memphis for treatment, they stay at one of the hospital’s three housing facilities: Tri Delta Place, Ronald McDonald House or Target House.

Taking on catastrophic diseases
In the 1980s, a new disease began striking children: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. At the time, AIDS was a disease few people wanted to discuss. Danny Thomas pointed out that St. Jude had been established to look for cures for catastrophic diseases affecting children. This included AIDS.

In 1987, he and Walter T. Hughes, then-chair of the St. Jude Infectious Diseases department, announced St. Jude had enrolled a number of children with AIDS into research protocols. The work at St. Jude played a large role in demonstrating the drug Zidovudine (AZT) decreases the risk of transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to an unborn child.

St. Jude treats a number of catastrophic diseases but, of course, the impact St. Jude has had on the treatment of pediatric cancer is unrivaled. St. Jude has helped raised the overall survival rate for childhood cancers from less than 20 percent in 1962 to 80 percent today.