Fifteen years and 5,000 miles later, St. Jude inspires Cale Zaugg's life of service in Senegal

Former patient, 25, teaches classes at a girls school run by a Senegalese nonprofit. He shares how the lessons he learned at St. Jude still inspire him.

  •  4 min

Cale Zaugg

Before COVID-19, I spent two days a week teaching classes at a girls school run by a Senegalese nonprofit. But I also joke I’m the school’s itinerant repair man. When technology breaks, people bring it to me.

Recently, I sat in the school computer room with 10 broken-down old computers in need of update and repair. Part of me wanted to just throw the really bad ones out and leave the others as-is – no one would ever bother working with computers in this condition in the States.

But they were all we had, and I needed to make them as good as possible. It took more than two days, integrating hardware, tinkering, doing lots of Googling, and initiating multiple software pack downloads. All while trying to conserve internet on a pay-per-gigabyte system. But in the end, I had success.

I no longer see this type of work as incidental to my job. In fact, it’s turned out to be a crucial first step to doing anything meaningful. The girls learned so much better once the computers worked smoothly and efficiently.

Maybe I enjoy this kind of work because – in essence – it reminds me of what St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital does. They combine attention to detail with hard work and creativity to solve problems and improve the lives of young people.

And that’s how they saved my life.

One day when I was 10, I was sitting next to my dad on the sofa and he noticed a big lump on the side of my neck. We went to the doctor and they did a biopsy. We were devastated to learn it was cancer, most likely a form of lymphoma.

We spent almost two months going between various hospitals and clinics trying to figure out the subtype. The subtype helps determine the best treatment, but nowhere we went in our home city could figure it out.

Meanwhile, a local doctor was already preparing a treatment plan involving radiation and a high dose of chemotherapy drugs that can cause damage to the heart and internal organs.

But the thing was, we were all pretty sure we’d caught it early. As far as cancer goes, it seemed non-aggressive. The harsh treatment felt like, as my dad always described it, “shooting a squirrel with an elephant gun.”

My dad, embodying the spirit of St. Jude, believed there had to be a better way. He started doing research online, and after reading countless medical journals, stumbled upon a St. Jude doctor doing groundbreaking work with Hodgkin lymphoma. He emailed her on a Saturday night and she wrote back Sunday morning to say I’d be a good fit for one of the trials. In an exceptionally short time span, we’d obtained a referral.

As it turned out, no one could figure out the subtype because it was an extremely rare form of lymphoma called lymphocyte predominant. Yet, St. Jude figured it out in less than two days. And we all breathed a sigh of relief when they told us that, as expected, it was relatively non-aggressive.

Cale Zaugg

On that same day, St. Jude enrolled me in a treatment plan that did away with radiation and used a much lower dose of chemotherapy, so there would be virtually no side effects. It was among the first trials of its kind, and proved successful in helping kids achieve remission.

I was no exception. Halfway through my 18-week chemotherapy regimen, I was cancer free, and it never came back.

As a kid, I loved St. Jude because of the fun activities, the hopeful atmosphere and the kindness of the nurses and doctors. As an adult, I also love that the treatment itself was kind.

On the standard treatment, I might not have grown taller than I was at 10, I wouldn’t have been able to have kids, I almost certainly would have experienced significant health problems throughout my life. The St. Jude treatment, by being less harsh, did away with nearly all the potential side effects.

At St. Jude, no one was resigned to the idea that we needed an elephant gun to shoot a squirrel. They weren’t resigned to the fact that this was just the “standard treatment.” Instead, they refused to accept the status quo. They said, “It shouldn’t have to be this way. Let’s make this better. Let’s do this better. Let’s find a solution.”

Fatalism is the idea we can’t really improve or fix some of the difficulties of life. We’re too often resigned to the idea that particular groups of people don’t get good educations or have diverse opportunities in life. We too quickly decide that the healthcare options that exist right now must be as good as it gets.

Girls in Senegal often don’t have the opportunity to be educated. But our school is low priced and subsidized, and within the means of most families. People are asked to pay, but when they can’t we’ve never had to turn anyone away. We make it work.

One thing that attracted me to this Senegalese organization is that it reminds me of St. Jude in its determination to imagine something better and to act on it.

Girls do have value. They deserve education.

A 10-year-old’s quality of life does have value. And it’s worth fighting for.

Nearly 5,000 miles from the U.S., the lessons I learned at St. Jude still inspire me.