Episode 1 of 6
“We put the dolls up on a shelf.”
Everything changed when the cancer diagnosis came for Jessica Turri at 9 years old. But her story isn’t what you think. Not even close. Relive her improbable life – from treatment at St. Jude to the set of a popular TV show, from Nashville TV news to country music – with members of her awestruck family.
00:01 Jessica Turri: I can't imagine being anywhere else. I feel like every single day I have this grateful heart, like I just know that there has been so many... I've been offered so many chances and I've been given another chance at life, and I really feel a lot of pressure to make that life count.
00:26 Narrator: Jessica Turri knew about St. Jude Children's Research Hospital from the time she was a little girl growing up in Memphis, home to St. Jude. She had raised money for St. Jude participating in fundraising programs like St. Jude Trike-A-Thon and Math-A-Thon. Jessica participated in a grade school art contest, imagining a day when childhood cancer was no more. But shortly after that, Jessica would find herself walking through the red front doors of St. Jude, beginning her own personal journey with childhood cancer. With her mother Allison, her father Steve, and sister Jordan, there for every moment.
01:11 Jessica: I can only hope that it's paying it forward and helping a family who's walking in today, it's just sort of to make their journey a little bit better...
01:25 Narrator: This is St. Jude Flashpoint.
01:28 Jessica: I'm Jessica Turri, and I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, it's also known as ALL, when I was nine years old. And that's where my St. Jude journey began.
01:46 Allison: She's my oldest child. She's a person who keeps a lot of plate-spinning. She's a very spirited person, and a spiritual person as well, but she was always very driven. She's probably the strongest person I ever knew. Honestly.
02:05 Steve: Jessica, she actually had, I think it was Change the World theme for some artwork, and Jessica did this picture and it had the front of St. Jude, and it just said "St. Jude" like a kindergartener would draw it, and had balloons going up and everything, and it said, "Let's go home." And it was cancer's care and it was St. Jude, and it was three years before she was ever diagnosed.
02:30 Jessica: I'd done this art contest as a kindergartener. And the art shows a bunch of kids, stick figures, holding balloons, and it's in front of a simple kid-drawn building, and it just says, "Let's go home." So, I knew enough about St. Jude, even as a kid, that when they had given us this theme... I guess, "If you had a dream, what would it be?" I drew this picture of St. Jude closing, and that was as a five-year-old, but I'd also done the Math-A-Thon and the Trike-A-Thon. We've talked about what those kids go through, and we've talked about how heroic they are, but it's going to be so different when we walk through those doors and that is me, and that is our family.
03:22 Steve: I think she decided she wanted to be as normal as possible. No matter what, she wanted, she wanted... She absolutely, positively wanted to be as normal at school... She tried to miss as few days as possible at school, and anyway, I think she's just a strong character.
03:48 Jessica: I went to elementary school, at the school that was in our neighborhood, and my mom was the art teacher at the school where my sister and I went. And so, that was a really awesome thing, having mom down the hallway, especially when I was diagnosed with leukemia, because I spent a lot of time going down to mom's classroom to take naps or to get my medicine. And our goal was always to live as normal of a life as we could, and having her there at the school helped me to get the care that I needed, but also, to go on with the normal days of being in the classroom when I could. But I had amazing teachers, and so, elementary school was great, grew up with the kids that were in the neighborhood, and then we ended up going to middle school and high school together.
04:55 Jordan: As a kid, I think it's natural for other kids to be curious about Jessica having no hair, or she had crutches at one point. She looked different, and I don't remember anyone saying things to me about it, but I remember Jessica having some really hard days from questions she got, or just feeling not like a little girl as she should have. And those are, of course, my words, but I remember she was so embarrassed when she got the crutches because that just made it a little too real for everyone around her. She could wear a hat and maybe it didn't draw as much attention to her, but when you have crutches and you're in, maybe, sixth grade, that's not a fun thing. And you have it not because you were active and broke your leg, it's because if you're taking really strong medicine and your bones aren't strong enough. She was always so positive about it, and I think what the hardest part of those moments was that she just didn't like for people to know how sick she was, didn't like for them to know how tired and maybe how bad she was hurting that day. And so, that just... You can't deny when you're walking around with purple crutches in your middle school.
06:42 Steve: I think she's really an amazing character, just a hero to me and I'm dad, I mean, obviously dads are gonna think that, but I was always just impressed about her.
06:54 Jordan: Jessica and all that she's been through, I think she just amazes me.
07:00 Steve: I can tell when she's really pushing it. She has this look, maybe only a dad would see this. It's kind of a thing she does with her lower lip.
07:10 Jordan: There's kind of like a certain face that she makes and I know that she's like faking it.
07:15 Steve: She's just incredibly tired but she wants to keep on moving forward.
07:17 Jordan: You would never know it by looking at her how sick she sometimes is and I think that that can be a really great thing, but that can also be a really hard thing.
07:29 Allison: She's never been very physically strong since then, and she's never gonna run a marathon, she's never gonna... But she understands all that, she's okay. [chuckle] She's doesn't care. Sometimes I'll be like, "You know, you really need to just walk, go outside and walk", because again she has some bone damage and weight-bearing activity is good for that. She's like, "Well, I don't know." That just never has bothered her. She just tried to go on and be as normal... It's hard after everything she went through and all the things that come with being a St. Jude patient. There are a lot of... In a strange way, there are some perks.
08:12 Steve: So I'm sure she would probably tell you that she probably wouldn't change a thing. I think it made her who she is.
08:21 Allison: She has an understanding of the true meaning of life. I used to say she understands it's not about where you sit at the lunch table in third grade or going to cheerleading lessons or whatever. She knows there's a whole lot more to it, and that it... Nothing is a given. It can go tomorrow, and she understands that and because of that, she lives it to the fullest. She travels as much as possible, tries to have as many new experiences as much as possible, but she also is still very, very close to her family. Other families, I'm not saying we won't ever have problems or that we don't have problems, but we've been through something together that gives us an entirely different sort of a bond. We all live in the same neighborhood. We went to school in the same place. Several of her friends' mothers were teachers or whatever, we... That was a real tight-knit little community. There were girl scouts, just everything that you would expect, going to the beach with the same kids, everything. All the normal things.
09:45 Jessica: That's where I was when I was diagnosed, right? We were going to tea parties, and I had Molly and my friend had Felicity and we were buying costumes for them and matching them with our own dresses, and when I was diagnosed, all of that was put on hold, so my dolls went up in the box.
10:09 Allison: Your lives are so normal, you know you're going to piano lessons and doing normal things and then everything really turns upside down.
10:18 Steve: They called Jessica home, she was at school to tell her and it was really dramatic.
10:25 Jordan: Jessica had been sick for several weeks and was in and out of the hospital. They were trying to figure out what was wrong, and so I just remember my teacher saying, "I'm gonna take you home." But I could just tell how serious it was.
10:41 Steve: Kids just like, you're going to be sick for a while and you're gonna come through on the other side of this.
10:47 Jordan: And so I went home with her and she took me to my house eventually, and then I remember my parents sitting on the couch with Jessica. It was just a very solemn... Everyone was so scared.
11:06 Steve: When you're in that situation, it's very difficult. You're trying to explain like we're gonna make it through this.
11:12 Allison: In a very weird way, your childhood kind of stopped.
11:20 Steve: You wish you could take their place, of course, keep them from having to live through this.
11:25 Allison: It wasn't, "Hey, let's play with dolls" anymore. It was completely different.
11:31 Steve: When your child is born, you would... You know at the moment that they're born that you would jump into the Lion's Den for them.
11:43 Narrator: Up next, Jessica's young life changes forever.
11:49 Steve: She kinda sunk down to the floor. Still remember her asking, "What did I do to deserve this?"
11:57 Narrator: Rate, review, and subscribe to St. Jude Flashpoint on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. Learn more, donate or volunteer at stjude.org. Finding cures. Saving children.