Saluting St. Jude graduates, who have so much to teach us all

After surviving childhood cancer, these kids know a lot about putting life's challenges - including the pandemic - into context.

It’s graduation season, and so our thoughts turn to pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns, and that rite of passage from high school to college and from college to the so-called real world.

But for the graduates I’m thinking about today, the patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the world was all-too-real when they were just kids.

So this pandemic that’s stolen one of the most anticipated moments of their young lives? I know they’ll cope with not having traditional commencement ceremonies, just as they’ve coped with far larger obstacles. Like champs.

Because who better to persevere through a life upended than a St. Jude patient?

I think about Ethan. A few months after he was diagnosed in 2010, he got a little money for his birthday. You know how money will burn a hole through a young one’s pockets. But not Ethan. He had another idea. He carried that money around the hospital for weeks, until he saw the person he was looking for.

It was me — “the man in charge,” as he’d told his parents.

That day, Ethan handed me a well-worn envelope and said, “I want to give this to you to help sick kids.”

That was Ethan — a boy with cancer, bald with treatment — thinking not about himself, but others. Today, I’m so proud to say, he’s a high school senior, a graduate in the Class of 2020.

And I think about Adam. Even as he battled cancer, he vowed to be the voice for the voiceless. He called me into his hospital room while getting a chemotherapy treatment, opened his laptop and presented a business plan to raise $1 million for St. Jude.

I think about everything Adam poured into his mission. In April 2019, he ran the St. Jude Rock ‘N’ Roll Nashville half marathon, then two months later he climbed on a bike and raised money riding with supporters along the Mississippi River. Then in September, he participated in the St. Jude Walk/Run. And last December he met his biggest challenge of all, running the full St. Jude Memphis Marathon.

Along the way, he didn’t just raise money. He raised Adam’s Army, an international band of supporters who helped him — yes — achieve that $1 million dream.

That’s Adam. And now he’s graduating from college.

And I think of Madison, who arrived at St. Jude as a college freshman.

She persevered through chemotherapy and months of physical and occupational therapy, the agonizing process of becoming herself again. And more upheaval — she had to transfer to another school, to be closer to home and to St. Jude, but she made the best of that, too.

And this spring, poised to become the first college graduate in her family, what happened but a pandemic that closed schools and halted graduations and other large gatherings?

Sure, she was disappointed. “But,” as she told her dad, “I’ve been through worse.”

Childhood cancer. I can’t imagine anything worse than that.

And yet Ethan, Adam and Madison remind me every day — and especially in these days of graduation season — that St. Jude patients are special people. They have a spirit that inspires us all, a spirit worth celebrating even in these times of forced separation.

And so it was for Madison, treated by family, friends and neighbors to a pandemic-safe graduation celebration — a surprise 30-car procession streaming by her house, with horns honking and signs waving.

“Oh my gosh,” she said. “This is all for me?”

This is for you, Madison. And for you, Ethan. And for you, Adam.

This is for all the kids of St. Jude, who have so much to teach the rest of us about life, living and the so-called real world.

 

Richard C. Shadyac Jr. is President and CEO of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

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