As a volunteer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, I spend a lot of time covered in glitter. Every Wednesday, I have fun doing arts and crafts with families at the hospital. For several days afterward, I’ll find glitter stuck to my face, my clothes, my skin. But that’s not the only thing I take with me when I leave each week. I think about those families—their challenges, their stories. And often, I remember my brother.
In 1963, my little brother died of leukemia in a North Carolina hospital. My mother had heard of the new hospital named St. Jude, but she had other children and no family support, so traveling to Memphis was impossible. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because during that era only 4 percent of children survived leukemia. My brother was 3½ years old when he passed away.
I worked as a nursing assistant at St. Jude in 1978, while attending nursing school. Occasionally, I’d meet children who reminded me of my brother. Survival rates were still low in those days, and it became difficult for me to see those children. After graduation, I spent my nursing career working at other hospitals, eventually taking early retirement because of multiple sclerosis.
I feel like my little brother still leads me places. In 2004, I returned to St. Jude as a volunteer, where I was assigned to the outpatient leukemia/lymphoma area, working with children who have the same disease that my brother had. Sitting at that table, doing arts and crafts, children and their parents relax and open up. They talk about what’s going on in their lives, and I just listen. Sometimes having someone to hang around with is all you need.
Coming from a medical background, I appreciate all that St. Jude does for these families. St. Jude provides housing, travel expenses and amazing medical care. The cost for cancer treatment is staggering, but St. Jude covers those costs.
When my brother got sick, he was handed a death sentence. Today, children with the same kind of cancer have a 94 percent survival rate, which to me is mind-blowing. St. Jude uses its resources wisely in order to make those kinds of medical advances. I wish that all donors would visit St. Jude to see how their money is being spent. If they walk through the hospital for just a few minutes, they’ll know that they’re making a wise investment.
I love spending time with the children at St. Jude. Together, we paint and we glue and we color. We laugh and talk and make a mess. I think about what my family went through decades ago, and I see how much St. Jude offers these children. And I reach for that glitter.
A hospital volunteer since 2004, Patty Stephens serves as president of the St. Jude Auxiliary, which provides volunteer support and raises funds for the hospital. She is also the 2011 winner of the Sheryl K. Nienhuis Memorial Volunteer Service Award.
Promise magazine, Winter 2012