By Brittney Chiuppi
As an employee in Financial Services at St. Jude, Hope Walker knew the magnitude of trying to cure childhood cancer. Her daughter, Candace Pearson, was also drawn to the mission and volunteered in Food Services in college making snack bags for patients. Pearson always wanted to work with her mother at St. Jude, so she was thrilled to earn a coveted dietitian internship.
The excitement quickly faded into worry when Pearson started to get sick. Only a few months into Pearson's internship, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
With Pearson being 21 years old at the time, Walker didn’t think that her daughter could be treated at St. Jude. But like any worried mother, she wanted a second opinion.
“I had confidence in the physicians at St. Jude. I thought if I could just get a doctor to look at the scans, she would get the right diagnosis and treatment plan,” Walker said.
Walker knew that her coworker's husband was a doctor and asked if he would look over Pearson’s charts and treatment plan. Her coworker’s husband was Joseph Laver, MD, the clinical director of St. Jude at the time. After looking over the charts, Laver had a surprising response to Pearson’s treatment plan.
“The type of cancer I had happens a lot in the young adult population, so they said that they had a precedence for it here at St. Jude and they accepted me as a patient,” Pearson said.
As a full-time employee at St. Jude, Walker was able to take family medical leave during her daughter’s treatment. Pearson spent the next few months going through four rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation.
“With the trust that I had in the care team for her, I knew that she was going to beat this,” Walker said. “They were 150% into taking care of the kids and making them better. And I knew that we were going to come out on the other side of this.”
Walker and Pearson both knew how great St. Jude was for cancer treatment, but they were truly amazed by the way the staff welcomed them into the hospital.
“Working here, I knew the cure rate and everything. But when you come in the door as a patient and parent, you are welcomed as part of the family, and you start seeing what’s happening. You get that confidence that they are going to do anything to save my child,” Walker said.
Pearson doesn’t remember parts of her intense treatment, but she does recall how much the staff cared.
“Chemo was at nighttime, so I would sleep all day long. I felt terrible. The people from my mom’s department would come in and check on me. The dietitians I interned with would also check on me,” Pearson said.
As a single mother, Walker said she would not have been able to make it without her St. Jude work family. They brought gifts, food and words of encouragement during Candace’s treatment.
“She was inpatient and really sick. It always seemed if we were having a bad day, somebody would call or show up at the door. I talked to my boss, and I said, ‘we need something to lift our spirits.’ As I was talking to her, there was a knock at the door. It was the financial planning director and she had balloons in her hand. That brightened Candace’s day,” Walker said.
Walker started to cry when she talked about a touching moment when her entire department of 50 people each wrote letters for her daughter and tucked it into a homemade bag. “It was a pocketful of sunshine. It was a support to me and to her,” Walker recalled.
Pearson is grateful for her mother’s help during treatment and is in awe of her strength during that time.
“As a single mom, I know that came with its own challenges. When your child is sick, it’s a whole different thing and unlocks a new level of parenthood. It was hard for me as a patient, but it was also hard for her,” Pearson said.
Pearson has now been cancer free for 10 years. She recently got married, and she achieved her dream of becoming a dietitian.
After working at several different Mid-South hospitals, she always knew that she wanted to work at the place that cured her—St. Jude.
In September 2022, her experience as a patient brought her to a new career as a clinical scheduler. With so much time spent in appointments as a patient, she adds a unique perspective to scheduling.
“Being a patient and knowing how significant the schedule is to the flow of your every day, it’s a puzzle to figure out,” Pearson explained.
Pearson has truly come full circle with her time at St. Jude. She’s been a volunteer, intern, patient and now employee.
“It’s cool to come back and see the people who helped you survive. When I was a patient, my blood counts were so low that I had to wear a mask all the time. And I was bald for a time. But the doctors and nurses still recognize you,” Pearson said.
Walker is thrilled to have Pearson working at St. Jude now. She is excited to see her daughter continue to grow in her role.
“She’s overcome so much. The strength that she had through her diagnosis and her treatment. I thought, ‘how can I not be strong?’ She inspires me every day with what she’s accomplished in her life. I foresee her helping in so many more ways,” Walker said.
Through Pearson’s time as a patient, she saw how amazing the St. Jude community was to her family. She is honored to be a part of St. Jude and help patients navigate through treatment.
“If you come in a bad mood, you won’t leave in one. This place lifts your spirits. Everybody treats each other like family,” Pearson said.