Tori Huster, a professional soccer player with the Washington Spirit, has been an ambassador for St. Jude since fall of 2019 and attends local fundraising events to help promote the mission and work of the children's research hospital.
I took Stella’s hand in mine and walked slowly with her up the stairs, her mom following closely behind us. I was a little relieved, because just minutes before she was hiding behind her mom, a bit unsure of it all. I was worried she wouldn’t want to walk out on the field with me.
This was September 2019, before one of my soccer games at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., where my team, the Washington Spirit, honored the amazing work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
I have played in countless professional games, most of which involve the starting players from each team walking out before the game with young soccer players and fans. I know it can be daunting for them. While escorting these young people, I usually ask them their name and whether they play soccer. I’m always encouraged by these young faces and welcome the bit of lightheartedness before an intense 90-minute game.
But the walkout last September was different.
I had just met Stella. I commented on her amazing pink boots, which I’ve come to know are a staple of her wardrobe. Then I asked if she liked to play soccer. She said no, which made me smile. But then she continued that her sister Nora liked it. And my heart broke a little. I immediately regretted my question, a seemingly normal one, the one I asked before every single game.
I knew ahead of time that Stella was a St. Jude patient, and I was so excited and proud she was going to enter the field with me on the first game that we as a club were honoring St. Jude families. I had recently become a St. Jude Champion ambassador in the Washington area.
But when I got the no back from Stella, that she didn’t like to play soccer, I couldn't help but wonder if it was because she had been diagnosed with cancer at a young age, in hospital too often and simply could not play. I was kicking myself that I had asked without knowing her and her family a bit better. A hundred other questions popped up at that point: What type of cancer did she have? Was she still receiving treatment? Is she feeling okay right now? Should I talk about pets?
I also wanted to turn to her mom and ask how she was managing and, at the very least, give them both a hug. But while my heart so strongly desired these answers, I knew it wasn’t my place, let alone the place, to be asking such intimate things. Especially when the starting lineup began the trek onto the pitch and I regrettably had to switch my focus back to the game.
Fast-forward a few months to December 2019. I attended the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend with my sister, and was fortunate to meet another St. Jude patient, Anna. I was told beforehand that Anna was a soccer player like me. So, although I knew that the answer wouldn’t be no this time, some of those same questions started to float through my mind. Was she still able to play? What type of cancer was she diagnosed with? Is she cancer-free now? How is she managing all aspects of this and still finding a way to live normally? Is it wrong to assume that normal is even possible? Also, does she have any pets?
Simply because of logistics and more time, I got a chance to pose these questions to Anna. She shared her story with me, a complete stranger bonded simply over our mutual love for a game. The conversation flowed easily. Her story is one of courage, and not just in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Before she was diagnosed, she continued to play on her college soccer team through immense pain and fatigue, symptoms of her cancer, because she is so dedicated.
Maybe being an athlete for so many years assisted Anna in overcoming her cancer. Being the strong woman that she is, I know she would have persevered regardless, but it made me wonder particularly about the very young children who are in the St. Jude family, like Stella.
I thought of how she’d be too young to know what it’s like to push your body to the point of exhaustion on the training field, or to lift weights that are equal to your body weight. Where did she find the strength, the courage to persevere — this cute little human in pink boots who was a bit nervous to walk onto the field with me?
The answer was clear on mile 5 of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, where I witnessed one of the most extraordinary moments I’ve ever experienced. Between mile marker 5 and 6, participants in the race run through the St. Jude campus. Here, there were several patients who were helped out of their hospital rooms and joined others to cheer the runners on.
Here, I had the chance to meet one St. Jude family whose son is a current patient. His parents were running the race while his grandparents were cheering with him and his two younger siblings. When he finally caught sight of his parents, the joy on his face was indescribable. There were runners who were former St. Jude patients, now being cheered on by current patients, family members who were running in remembrance of those they’d lost, as well as high-level runners taking the opportunity to use their talents to raise money for the research hospital.
The energy and connection that could be felt at mile 5 explained why St. Jude is a special place, why Stella has great strength even in her youth, why Anna volunteered for St. Jude even before she became a patient. There is a unique sense of connectedness, of belonging and of support. A very real display of everything St. Jude stands for.
When I visited St. Jude, I learned that St. Jude founder Danny Thomas would rather have a big group of people giving even a small amount of money than a single person giving a large amount. It is the people that make St. Jude possible. It’s the unmatched resilience of the patients. It’s also the doctors and nurses, the researchers, the mothers and fathers, the friends, the anonymous donors.
There is tremendous power in continuing the fight against childhood cancer together. I’m happy and grateful to be one of the many supporting St. Jude.