She was a grieving mom. He was a fitness trainer battling cartilage cancer. They fell in love. As St. Jude Heroes, they run together, stride for stride, in memory of her son Quincy.
As running partners and now life partners, Leigh Ann and Kenny Parrish of Kentucky have raced through parts of Downtown Memphis, past the Civil Rights Museum and Victorian Village, along the mighty Mississippi River, and through the campus of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where St. Jude families and staff have lined the path and cheered them on. They’ve made it up the hills of Nashville, and last year because of the pandemic and events going virtual, their own neighborhood became their St. Jude Heroes course.
Cherished places, all.
They’ve been running together like this for seven years. Leigh Ann, the laid back hairdresser who discovered, through running, she was a lot tougher than she ever thought she could be. And Kenny, with his self-described “warped sense of humor and no off switch,” who’ll wear a tutu and tiara while running if it means an extra donation for St. Jude.
“You either had to laugh at yourself or cry at yourself,” said Kenny.
Ain’t that the truth, and Leigh Ann knew it, too. Right from the beginning, he could make her laugh.
When Leigh Ann met Kenny in 2013, she couldn’t fight the attraction, so she had to fight the fear.
“He had chondrosarcoma, and he was on chemo,” said Leigh Ann, “which was terrifying to me. Terrifying. Because I was so afraid that I would lose him after having lost Quincy.”
Her son Quincy passed away in 2010 from neuroblastoma when he was only 8. St. Jude had provided his care.
“I just decided to take a leap of faith and trust my feelings were leading me in the right direction,” said Leigh Ann.
The couple married in 2019. Aligned in their love of St. Jude and in memory of Quincy, they keep running.
What she had lost
They started off in 2013 as Facebook friends, set up by a mutual buddy who believed that because they had cancer and fitness in common, they might make good friends for each other.
He was a gregarious, ex-military guy from Tennessee who did fitness training and ran for St. Jude despite having cancer himself.
“I was just in awe by how strong and fit he was,” said Leigh Ann. “And being able to do that while on chemotherapy, it just blew my mind.”
She was a small town Kentucky mom, grieving the loss of her son and making her first attempts at getting fit after Quincy’s death.
Because his loss had been crushing, and it had been hard to even move.
“I remember my sister pulling on me saying, ‘C’mon, you’re getting up off the couch. We’re going for a walk,’ and I finally started moving again,” said Leigh Ann.
On Facebook, Kenny saw her photos and posts about Quincy.
“That was when I started realizing what she had went through and what she had lost,” said Kenny.
A way for me to work out my sorrow
In time, they met up for running events and despite her fears, love grew.
“I’ve never met anybody that I’ve had that much in common with,” said Kenny. “Going through tragedy in your life and staying sane enough to function.
“It was almost like we had known each other forever. We were able to sit and talk and laugh and enjoy each other’s company. We just got along. And I forgot everything when I was with her.”
Soon she started training with him. They did strength training three days a week and ran six days a week, sometimes up to 20 miles in one run.
During those outings, “I talked about Quincy all the time,” said Leigh Ann. “I was sad that he didn’t get a chance to meet him and see his personality so I tried to make up for that by telling him everything I could about him.”
She eventually lost 110 pounds and was in the best shape of her life.
But the benefits went much deeper.
“It really helped with depression and having too much time to sit around and think,” said Leigh Ann. “It was a way for me to work out my sorrow and put that negative energy somewhere, and it really did help my mindset.”
Life was just too short not to grab your shot at happiness, so he moved to Kentucky to be with her.
Leigh Ann opened her own hair salon five years ago in the one-stoplight town where they live. “It’s kind of a one-woman circus,” she said.
She’s on the court square, two doors down from Kenny’s shop where he does group and private training. Right now because of the pandemic and recent surgeries, he leaves the key for his people, and they’ll go in and use the weights and follow the program that he lays out.
He has a devoted clientele, his “fan club,” as Leigh Ann calls it.
Before the pandemic, he used to pop into her shop and pay her a visit and say hello to anyone in the chair. His favorite clients were boys getting their first haircuts with her.
“Kenny will walk in and say, ‘Look what she did to mine,’ and point to his head, and he’s bald,” she said and starts laughing.
He’s a goofball. So was Quincy.
“Those kids’ eyes would get so big, and she’s like, ‘He’s just joking,’” said Kenny. And the kid would realize and begin to laugh. “There’s nothing better in the world than a kid laughing.”
In 2005, Quincy, then 3, began running a persistent low-grade fever, and they thought it was a stomach bug. When he also became constipated and sick to his stomach, they assumed he felt stress from the death of a close family member.
But a CT scan revealed a spot on Quincy’s lung, and soon Quincy was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, a cancer that forms in nerve tissue.
At St. Jude, Quincy underwent chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor, a stem cell transplant and radiation. A grueling set of treatments, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Quincy, who had a happy disposition. Leigh Ann credits St. Jude for that.
“He was cared for at St. Jude,” said Leigh Ann. “He was able to bond with so many people. We tried to enjoy every day that we had and to cherish it.”
Which brings her to a memory of Quincy and his older sister Melody sneaking out of bed one morning after it had snowed. Melody had bundled the little boy up and put him on the sled with her.
“I woke up and the kids weren’t in the house, so I ran to the back door, and they were sledding down the hill with his IV bag strapped to his back,” said Leigh Ann. “They were mischievous and just really sweet little siblings.”
The cancer seemed to go away for a while, but by late 2006, it had returned in his pelvis and in the orbital bone of his skull. Antibody therapy and chemotherapy were successful at making him better for a time, but the cancer didn’t stay away for long. And once it came back that second time, things seemed more critical.
By June 2010, Leigh Ann sensed they were losing Quincy. The cancer was growing.
“Even on his bad days, he still had tons of energy and was a pretty peppy little fellow,” said Leigh Ann. “and [now] he was just so worn down from so many treatments. You could just tell that he was tired.”
They read books with Quincy about heaven.
“Even though he didn’t speak the words that he was going to be leaving, there was kind of a knowing there,” said Leigh Ann. “If I cried, he would shake his head no and wipe my tears away.”
He passed away in August 2010.
Kenny knows when she’s thinking about Quincy.
“Sometimes it’s just a far off look, a tone of her voice, and for the longest it was she’d dream about him, and I’d hear her crying. And I’d just hug her. It’s all you can do.”
A sign from Quincy
Halfway through her race during the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend in 2015, Leigh Ann Russell’s thighs and calves were burning. She questioned if she could finish. Kenny ran beside her.
The St. Jude ABCs of Cancer were printed along mile markers that lined their race route, and she knew one thing: She had to get to the letter N. Quincy’s letter. St. Jude had asked 26 kids to illustrate a letter of the alphabet, associating each letter with some aspect of their treatment journey. 26 letters. 26 miles.
And there it was along the race route: Quincy’s mile marker 14.
Quincy had drawn N for Nurses: “St. Jude nurses love and take care of me.” He had also drawn a train chugging out hearts instead of steam.
Quincy had loved trains. Whenever a train rolled by, “he would do the little pull signal so that they would blow the horn,” said Leigh Ann.
“Sometimes at significant moments in my life, the train horn sounds. And it always kind of makes me smile because I feel like that’s his way of saying, “Things are OK.”
She reached up and put her hand on his sign as they went by. And that did it.
“I felt at that point that I would be able to finish the race and make it through the finish line,” said Leigh Ann.
And she did. Her first marathon.
She and Kenny crossed the finish line holding hands.
The pandemic has caused business challenges for Kenny and Leigh Ann, but they’ve weathered that and some surgeries. In the past year and a half, Kenny, who has been cancer free since 2018, has undergone five surgeries, four of them major.
“I mean, he is a walking miracle,” said Leigh Ann. “But it wasn’t without years of treatment, and during the treatment, the doctors said that fitness saved his life.”
Six years of cartilage cancer and its treatment had taken its toll on his shoulders and knees.
She underwent back surgery last year.
“We might not be the poster children for fitness right now,” Leigh Ann said and laughs, “You sure you want to do a story about us?” but they’ve started walking, and they know they’ll be back on their feet. It just takes time.
Kenny’s orthopedic surgeon says Kenny can still do shorter runs, but advised he should only attempt one more longer run to protect his knees.
“I just want to do one more marathon,” said Kenny. That might not happen until the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend in 2022, when he should be back in top form, but no matter what, they’ll participate in this year’s event.
Quincy’s older sister Melody moved back home, and she and her mom are undertaking “an emotional project” to convert Quincy’s bedroom into a video game room so it will be a lively place again, which he would have wanted.
They are putting up shelves with the toys and trains and other things that were special to him. “We have a t-shirt quilt made from all of his favorite shirts that we’re going to put on a daybed in his room so we can lounge in there and visit,” Leigh Ann said.
A space for all of them.
If Leigh Ann has given Kenny anything, it’s the ability to just be.
“She’s pretty good at keeping me managed. Reining me in,” said Kenny. “As someone told my mom when we got married: ‘Kenny is like the bull in the china shop, and Leigh Ann is the person who goes in real nice and calms him down.’”
They spend time outdoors and go fishing.
Kenny’s brashness has brought Leigh Ann some much-needed balance. She’d been a people pleaser before. Now she stands up for herself.
“Because she always wanted to make everybody happy,” said Kenny. “And I think she met me and after a while she realized, ‘It’s no use making everyone else happy if you’re not happy.’”
Running had a large part in that, too.
“I had no idea I was so strong until I put on my shoes and began to run,” said Leigh Ann.