Women leading the charge to cure cancer
During Women's History Month, ALSAC President and CEO Richard C. Shadyac Jr. reflects on the incredible contributions of doctors, researchers and fundraisers throughout the history of St. Jude.
When Dr. Donald Pinkel, the first medical director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, reported for work in Memphis, Tenn., it was to an office that was little more than a shell with a table, chair and two wires coming in from the outside — one for a telephone and one for a light. It was November 1961, and Danny Thomas’ start-up hospital Pinkel had joined would open just a little over three months later.
One of Pinkel’s first objectives was to staff St. Jude, saying, “What St. Jude will be will depend on the people who work in it.”
As I reflect on this month — Women’s History Month — I’m in awe of the contributions made by women to the St. Jude mission. From the very beginning, Sister Henrita and Sister Rita, the first administrative director and business director for St. Jude, respectively, lived in the hospital while developing an operations budget. The Ladies of St. Jude, established in 1956, volunteered and raised funds for a playroom and to purchase a station wagon for hospital use. And Rose Marie Thomas, Danny’s wife, traveled the country with her husband to gain support and help found ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. Today, their daughter, Marlo Thomas, is the National Outreach Director for St. Jude.
I’m elated, too, that women make up 70% of the workforce at ALSAC today. Through their leadership and dedication, and the funds they raise and awareness they create, these women help support Dr. Mary V. Relling, Chair of the St. Jude Pharmaceutical Sciences Department and member of the National Academy of Sciences. And Dr. Jinghui Zhang, chair of the Department of Computational Biology, whose team has made key discoveries with the St. Jude-Washington University Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. They support Dr. Sima Jeha, a leader in global pediatric medicine with St. Jude Global, an initiative to raise the survival rate of six of the most common childhood cancers from less than 20% to 60% worldwide by 2030.
St. Jude Global will help Dr. Mae Dolendo, a St. Jude fellow who, in 2004, was the only pediatric oncologist on her home island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Her work has increased the survival rate there from less than 10% to 50%. ALSAC works with Gloria de Dios, CEO of AYUVI, the fundraising foundation for the National Unit of Pediatric Oncology (UNOP). The St. Jude affiliate clinic in the mountains of Guatemala has seen fundraising skyrocket from $3 million to $11 million since 2007, and the survival rate in her clinic has risen from 20% to almost 70%.
We owe a debt to these women and so many more who proved Dr. Pinkel right by making St. Jude what it is today — the organization leading the way the world treats and cares for children with catastrophic pediatric diseases, delivering hope to families around the globe.
They’ve made a difference for Kris Keys, born with a genetic blood disorder and a patient at St. Jude throughout her childhood. As a distraction during treatment, she took up art and later, art helped her take control of her destiny.
“St. Jude completely transformed my life,” she said. Today, she travels the world, creating clothing and art inspired by her St. Jude journey and her own misshapen blood cells. And her art and journey inspire all of us at ALSAC/St. Jude to work together to help realize the dreams of Rose Marie, Marlo, Dr. Relling, Dr. Schulman, Dr. Jeha and a long list of other women who power this special mission.
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