Through past and present, the Spence family holds strong ties with St. Jude

Robert Spence found a sense of mission and equality at St. Jude. Decades later, his niece found life-saving treatment, and his son, a career.

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  •  7 min

Emmanuel Spence

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It was a run-of-the-mill Memphis spring Sunday in 2009 when Emmanuel Spence’s father asked him to sit down, delivering news that hit like a thunderclap.

His cousin, nine-year-old Sabrina, had been admitted to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the pediatric research hospital where his father once worked.

She had gone with her grandmother to church that morning. They ate brunch, then stopped to leave flowers on the grave of an aunt who had recently died of cancer.

By the time they got home, Sabrina’s grandmother noticed a bump on her left cheek. She showed it to her aunt, a physician, who shared the house along with Sabrina’s mother. 

“We have to go,” her aunt said, phoning the hospital where she worked over the state line in Mississippi. “I’m bringing Sabrina. I’ll explain on the way.”

The day accelerated in a terrifying blur. There was a rush to one hospital, then another. There were tests and bloodwork. “You need to go to St. Jude,” they were told, and their doctor made the referral. 

Sabrina, beloved for her bright eyes and easy laugh, would learn the next day she had Stage III cancer.

Soon Emmanuel was among Sabrina’s large, tight-knit Spence family clustered around her bedside. Next to him was his father, Robert Spence Jr., who had worked decades earlier at St. Jude as one of its first Black pharmacists. He knew they were in the right place.

Robert Spence Jr.

What Emmanuel didn’t yet know then was just how deeply his family would become intertwined with St. Jude, supporting and being supported by the hospital over a decades-long relationship. 

Or that Emmanuel, like his father before him, would one day dedicate his own life to supporting its mission.

At that moment, he only wanted Sabrina to survive.

“It was one of the scariest times in our family,” Emmanuel, now 29, recalled. 

The family’s history with St. Jude began 26 years earlier, when Robert Spence was only a few years older than his son who sat by Sabrina’s bedside. He had won a place among a small handful of African Americans in his roughly 150-student University of Tennessee pharmacy program.

It was 1980, and despite civil rights progress, opportunities for African Americans were still slow to open up. “The university was like most aspects of society — it was a work in progress,” Robert recalled.

In Memphis, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital mission had always loomed large since opening in 1962 to become the South’s first integrated hospital for both patients and providers — bringing critical help amid stark racial disparities in health and access to care.

Emmanuel Spence

Emmanuel Spence

A lifelong friend and classmate, Wendall Cheatham, told Robert of an opening. Robert began working as a student pharmacist. He became a full-time employee at St. Jude when he graduated in 1982. 

“It was an amazing place,” he said, recalling being struck by the urgent and cutting-edge care in a place of equality where families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food. “There was an overwhelming sense that we were on a mission, trying to achieve something that hadn’t been done.”

Each day, he prepared chemotherapies for children battling cancer, delivering medicine to doctors and nurses. He met brave young patients, sharing meals with their families and forming lasting friendships that are a defining feature of St Jude.

It could also be heartbreaking.

He recalled growing close to two African American patients in the sickle-cell clinic only to feel devastation when he learned one Monday that one of the girls had passed away over the weekend. He stayed in touch with the second for decades after, he said.

“It changes you to be around children who are struggling with life-threatening illness, and they do it with such courage,” he said “I was pretty young. It changed me forever.”

By the time Emmanuel was born in the early 1990s, his father had long since left St. Jude, if reluctantly, after feeling called to attend law school. Robert went on to become a prominent Memphis attorney. 

That included serving as city attorney from 1997 to 2004 under six-term Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. He guided the legal work to bring the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team to town and construct the FedExForum. Later, he became a private trial attorney. He fought for justice in cases ranging from civil rights to personal injuries. 

By that spring of 2009, St. Jude suddenly returned to Robert's life. But this time, he was part of a patient family, not a provider. 

“Having made the chemotherapy agents, and treated the side effects of those drugs, knowing the success rates…it was an anxiety-filled time,” he recalled. “But the support of the medical community was outstanding. I felt good that she was there.”

Indeed, the odds of success had grown. Treatments invented at St. Jude since it opened have since helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent.

Emmanuel, then a high-school junior, was scared — especially after losing an aunt to breast cancer the year before. Diagnosed with a cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, Sabrina had a tumor on the left side of her face full of malignant cancer cells. 

Emmanuel Spence

Sabrina sitting under the statue of St. Jude Thaddeus at the front doors of St. Jude.

Sabrina underwent immediate surgery, emerging unable to speak after she had a tracheotomy to safeguard her breathing.

“I woke up in the ICU and I looked at my grandma. I tried to say, ‘Where am I?’ But nothing came out,” Sabrina said. “It was terrifying.”

What followed was several weeks in the hospital followed by a year of intense treatment. “I had 44 rounds of chemo and 36 radiation treatments,” she said. 

She began writing poetry to channel “pretty heavy emotions.” A poem she later wrote, called “If I were to die,” reflected how she worried about the impact on her relatives if she didn’t make it. She knew she had to fight. 

At the hospital and at home, Emmanuel would drive from high school to bring her cheeseburgers and fries from her favorite fast-food joint. They would sit and talk, sometimes about school or books or the teacher St. Jude provided for Sabrina. He’d try to make her laugh.

“Some days after she had had procedures or small surgeries. Sometimes she was up, and some days, honestly, she was down,” Emmanuel said. 

Emmanuel was struck by the ways the hospital surrounded her with love and care, impressed by the close relationship between the Spences and St. Jude caregivers. Sabrina grew close to many, from her radiologist who patiently explained scans, to a smiling and encouraging security guard. 

“From the moment I walked into St. Jude, I was astounded how it didn’t feel like a hospital. It felt like family,” Emmanuel said. 

Amid Sabrina’s chemotherapy appointments and radiation treatment, she faced all manner of struggles from the impacts of the therapy, from medicine allergies to sleepless nights. “I could feel my body at war with itself,” she said. 

But the tumor was on the run. Eventually she returned to school, but she kept looking toward the five-year mark when she could be declared cancer-free. 

It finally came her freshman year of high school. The weight that sat on her shoulders was lifted. 

Emmanuel, who became like a big brother to her, was in college in New Orleans, a pre-law student at Xavier University of Louisiana, when the news came that again hit like a thunderclap.

This time, it was the sound he had been waiting to hear.

“Sabrina is cancer-free,” he recalled of a text from his aunt picturing a smiling Sabrina outside St. Jude. “I’ll never forget that day, seeing that picture, and feeling so much joy and gratitude toward the hospital.”

After graduation, Emmanuel decided to take a “gap year” before applying to law school. He worked for Bridges USA, a youth diversity and leadership skills non-profit. It sharpened his passionate interest in issues of racial equity including in health.

It was perhaps fate that the office was located right across the street from the St. Jude campus.

When a friend told him of an opening at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, he didn’t hesitate. In the interview, he said, his personal story flowed out — just as St. Jude had flowed through his family for years. 

“I thought about Sabrina. I thought about the opportunity to raise funds for families like ours. I thought about my father... I thought about a place that really embraced people from all different backgrounds,” he said. 

“It’s not just a pediatric cancer hospital. St. Jude is a part of my family,” he said. 

Emmanuel Spence

Emmanuel and his father.

And his studies of health disparities as part of a Master of Public Health degree program only added to his passion for building the research hospital's financial support. “St. Jude’s impact on the Black community was another big driver for me to work there,” he said. 

Emmanuel has worked for three years as part of ALSAC’s prospect development team, and recently was promoted to a larger role working with donors in the Mid-South and Southeast to deepen their relationship to the St. Jude mission.

He often shares the family's powerful story of connection with St. Jude. He can’t help it.  “It’s a part of me,” he said. 

Robert, now 63, has also come back into the fold, helping cultivate African American donors and participating in the St. Jude annual Spirit of the Dream event, which celebrates the achievements of African Americans who helped build the research hospital’s legacy.

“Emmanuel helped me reconnect with St. Jude from a donor perspective. And it’s very gratifying to work with my son,” Robert said. “St. Jude is a calling. It’s part of my life journey, and my family's life journey. We’re blessed to be a part of it.”

After high school graduation, for which she sent announcements to her St. Jude "family" of caregivers, Sabrina is thriving as a junior in college, majoring in English. She wants to be an arts journalist, write poetry and be involved in theater. 

She still experiences some hearing loss as an effect of treatment, but remains connected to St. Jude as part of a long-term study that includes a round of health tests every few years.

On her journey with cancer, she said, the hospital and her family left a lasting impact. On her wrist is a tattooed number 3 with a halo over it, a tribute to her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother, who never left her side. 

St. Jude, she said, has left an equally indelible imprint, as it has for the entire Spence family.

“I’m not who I am today without St. Jude,” she said. 

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