To mark National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), St. Jude is spotlighting the contributions of some of our Hispanic staff who work for St. Jude Global and the Department of Global Pediatric Medicine. Here, a few of them share what inspires their mission of improving the survival rates of children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases worldwide.
National heritage: Peruvian
Clinical Research Associate I
When Angela K. Carrillo Alocén, PhD, first joined St. Jude, she knew she could contribute to important discoveries in oncology and infectious diseases in her role as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics. Six years later, the Lima, Perú, native continues that work but with a worldwide view as a clinical research associate.
“Since I’m from Perú this means a lot to me,” she says. “The Latin American region will benefit greatly from the guidance and assistance that St. Jude can provide. As a scientist, there was a long process until my research discoveries could reach sick children. In this job, however, what I do has a direct impact on the health care and lives of children globally.”
Carrillo Alocén collaborates with physicians at approximately 30 Latin American hospitals, assisting them in the implementation of quality improvement, therapeutic and non-therapeutic clinical research. Much of this research has never been done in these countries, meaning it is truly groundbreaking.
“We have the mission to take St. Jude to the world,” she says. “This won’t be an easy task, but we have made great progress. We aren’t just trying to implement St. Jude protocols, but we want to adjust them according to the needs and the realities of these hospitals and countries so they can be successful.”
National heritage: Venezuelan
Administrative Assistant II
More than two years ago, Sandra Da Silva found a home in Memphis when she and her husband left behind the economic crisis crippling their home country of Venezuela. And it was at St. Jude that she discovered her mission when she joined the Department of Global Pediatric Medicine earlier this year.
“What inspires me most in my work is knowing that the small contribution I can make each day with my colleagues is helping St. Jude achieve our goal,” she says. “Our team is incredibly passionate and dedicated to saving the lives of children around the world.”
Da Silva met a Venezuelan doctor earlier this year who told her about the difficulties he faces in treating children because getting medicine to the country is problematic. But even when he has it, some patients can’t receive treatment because they’re too malnourished.
“He was looking for ways to help with meals and treatments for families so that he could carry out the protocols,” she says. “That conversation helped me see that there is a reason I’m here at St. Jude, and that I’m going to do what I can to help prevent more children from dying from cancer and other catastrophic illnesses in Venezuela as well as any country in the world.”
National heritage: Mexican
Project Coordinator, Critical Care, EVAT
Alejandra Gonzalez Ruiz first learned about St. Jude from a piece of mail: a donation request from ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness arm of St. Jude.
“While I was a physician in Mexico, I had a patient with HIV,” she says. “I saw the stigma that surrounded her treatment and I decided that I had to do something for her and for any patient that needed help. Years later, I received some mail that featured a child from Mexico that inspired me to learn more about the hospital. I wanted to know what else I could do to help.”
Once Gonzalez Ruiz learned more about St. Jude, she was moved by the vision of founder Danny Thomas.
“Everyone should have access to health care no matter where you’re from, your economic status or your heritage,” she says. “I feel like everyone at St. Jude is driven by this same goal. Coming here every day doesn’t feel like work—it feels like passion.”
Working as a project coordinator for the hospital’s Critical Care Unit, Gonzalez Ruiz helps to train physicians and nurses from partner sites in countries around the world to use an early warning system (EVAT) developed by Asya Agulnik, MD, Assistant Member from St. Jude. This system is designed not only to make patient care safer and more effective, but also to minimize costs at those institutions.
National heritage: Puerto Rican and Salvadorian
Project Coordinator, Sub-Saharan Africa Region and Disease Burden and Simulation Unit
Alisha Gray, MPH, finds inspiration in stories, specifically the ones that are written daily at St. Jude. But in addition to Danny Thomas’ dream that “no child should die in the dawn of life,” she finds inspiration in the hospital’s place in history.
“I did a deep dive in terms of trying to better understand why St. Jude was created, and I also discovered that Danny Thomas had another serious goal,” she says. “He wanted doctors, nurses and researchers of color here. That’s huge, especially in the South and at that time. Moving that forward is super inspiring to me.”
As project coordinator for both the Sub-Saharan Africa Region and the Disease Burden and Simulation Unit, Gray works at the heart of numerous initiatives that will expand pediatric oncology care to low- and middle-income countries. That includes the creation of a pediatric cancer registry that will track patients and help hospitals better understand what resources are needed.
“It’s a combination of a tool for patient tracking and quality improvement that will empower other countries to improve their care,” Gray says. “I believe in this vision.”
National heritage: Mexican
Cure4Kids Member Services and Live Events Coordinator
On Ana Shuler’s first day in Memphis, she was immediately drawn to St. Jude. “I saw the hospital as we were crossing the Mississippi river and I had to know more about that incredible place. Once I started reading about St. Jude, I knew that I had to work here.”
In the 17 years she has since dedicated to St. Jude, Shuler has been working with a global focus in mind. Early in her tenure, Shuler was promoted to the Cure4Kids team, where she has worked for the past 16 years. Cure4Kids is a web-based platform that provides online medical education and operates as a collaboration and information exchange for health care providers around the world. In her current role, Shuler supports more than 2,100 members worldwide in both English and Spanish and coordinates more than 180 live web conferences each month.
“Being able to provide support to the Cure4Kids collaborative groups to improve the care needed to effectively treat children worldwide has been amazing,” she says. “I like to feel as though I’m making a difference. Knowing that the training that we provide can positively impact the care of children in low- and middle-income countries is incredible. I like being part of our vision that every child with cancer has access to quality care no matter where they live in the world.”
National heritage: Venezuelan
Clinical Research Associate III
Cesar Villegas, MD, was first drawn to St. Jude by the stories he heard from survivors.
“I have had the opportunity to interact with families whose children were St. Jude patients in my previous experience as a surgeon in Venezuela,” he says. “The way that the families talked about St. Jude was inspiring. It was intriguing for me because they were more than thankful for everything that St. Jude did for them. It made me wonder: what was this hospital, and what can I do to work there?”
Initially working in the Department of Epidemiology and Cancer Control, Villegas recently moved to the new Department of Global Pediatric Medicine. There, he coordinates and implements projects focused on pediatric leukemia in low- and middle-income countries.
“I was drawn to St. Jude because how they combine basic science, treatment, patient care and research is unique,” he says. “There’s no place like this. I love being able to work with survivors and find out what happened with them. What were the consequences of their treatment, what did they go through, and what obstacles are they facing now? I’ve worked for other institutions and nothing compares to the research that we’re doing here. Because of St. Jude Global, I have the opportunity to give back to patients in low- and middle-income countries and I’m so excited about that.”