Dr. Donald Mack: A life of service, a legacy of hope

As a young pediatrician, Dr. Mack thought he could cure anything except childhood cancer. He counted on St. Jude for that.

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  •  6 min

Dr. Donald Mack stands in the halls of St. Jude Research Hospital

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Susan Mack Aguillard was in middle school when she first heard the story.

She already was working at her dad’s office, along with her sister, Cindy, filing papers and answering phones, and her brothers, Gene and Thomas, repainting the stripes in the parking lot.

It was in between patients that her dad, Dr. Donald Mack, told her how in 1961, he was admittedly cocky when he opened his pediatric practice in Shreveport, Louisiana, two years out of the U.S. Air Force, a year out of residency and confident he could cure anything.

Anything except childhood cancer.

Six weeks later, Mack saw his first patient with leukemia. At the time, it was a nearly fatal malady with a 4 percent survival rate. Treatment options were limited.

“I did exactly what the textbook said,” Mack told Aguillard. The child lived just three months.

Two months later, Mack saw his second patient with leukemia. He felt like a black cloud floated overhead.

By then, Mack had heard about a new treatment center for kids with cancer founded by entertainer Danny Thomas on the generosity of donors and named after St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was in Memphis, about 350 miles away. It would open on Feb. 4, 1962.

Mack vowed to keep the child alive until then.

The boy was the first patient referred to St. Jude from out-of-state. He lived for 18 months. The black cloud hovered.

That same year, Mack referred a third patient with leukemia to St. Jude. This time, the boy survived, and today is living in Dallas working and with a family of his own.

“This was a huge driving force for my father, seeing these patients grow up and make a life for themselves,” Aguillard said.

Would the black cloud lift? Back then, chances for these kids were slim. For her dad, St. Jude evened the odds.

“If St. Jude couldn’t do it, nobody could,” Aguillard said. “Daddy believed that.”

Mack believed in St. Jude. That a cancer diagnosis was not always hopeless. That the work being done at St. Jude would result in a cure. Someday.

Over five decades in practice, Mack referred dozens of patients to St. Jude for pioneering treatment and witnessed overall survival rates for childhood cancer rise to more than 80 percent and, in particular, to 94 percent for the leukemia that took his first two cancer patients.

Mack joined the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards of Directors and Governors in 1982.

Dr. Donald Mack sits amidst a crowd wearing his St. Jude pin

And in 1991, he started a fundraiser by raffling off a donated house that grew to become the St. Jude Dream Home® Giveaway, raising about $580 million nationwide so far.

Mack died on March 28, 2022, at age 90. But his belief in St. Jude — and his work on its behalf — continues.

St. Jude was 'part of our life'

Like St. Jude founder Danny Thomas, both Mack and his wife, Joan Thomas Mack, were the children of Lebanese immigrants. Aguillard said her grandparents’ attitude was, “I came to work, to make a life.” Her dad was like that, too.

Mack standing with wife, Joan Thomas Mack

Mack and his wife, Joan Thomas Mack

It’s why his children worked at their dad’s office, after school sometimes, on weekends and in the summer. At home in the evenings, his patients at St. Jude would call, much to her parents' delight.

“We never felt it was an interruption because we knew these people,” Aguillard said. “It was just part of our life.”

As a teenager, Aguillard escorted patients back to the examination room. She remembers helping her dad with intravenous chemotherapy treatments prescribed by St. Jude doctors.

It was about then Aguillard decided to become a pediatrician. Like her dad.

'This is the right thing to do'

Growing up, Aguillard didn’t give much thought to the magnitude of her dad’s involvement in the community and with St. Jude. To her and her siblings, the volunteer work her parents did, the charities they supported, were what people did.

“We all just thought, ‘This is right thing to do,’” Aguillard said.

It’s what her dad was doing when a friend called his office in 1991 and said she had a prefabricated house she wanted to donate to charity somehow. Did Mack have any ideas? She knew he’d do the right thing.

Mack told his friend, “Let’s meet at lunch. By then, I’ll have an idea for it.”

His idea was to raffle off the house to benefit St. Jude, selling tickets for $100 a pop. The publicity would raise awareness of childhood cancer.

People in Shreveport were eager to help. “Everyone knew him,” Aguillard said. Mack had doctored their children and then their grandchildren.

“It was Daddy’s idea, but a lot of wonderful people helped make it happen,” Aguillard said.

Thirty-one years later, many of those same people still are involved in the annual giveaway, including TV station KTBS 3, Rodgers Homes and Construction and Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA) service fraternity, among other volunteers.

That first year, they raised $160,000 for St. Jude. The next year, Mack and his partners built and raffled off a brand-new house, raising $350,000.

For five years, the giveaway took place only in Shreveport until Mack suggested doing the same in other cities, said Chris Boysen, a senior vice present at ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, who oversees the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway program.

Naysayers weren’t sure it would work anywhere else, Boysen said. But Mack was sure. For him, it was personal.

These were his patients, and their families were his friends and neighbors. He understood better than most the medical advancements and the research coming out of St. Jude. He saw the difference it made.

His generation of doctors saw the ravages of smallpox and polio and witnessed their eradication. Mack believed the same could happen with childhood cancer. He was counting on St. Jude.

“He wanted to be a part of that,” Aguillard said.

Mack was right about the potential of the fundraiser in cities other than Louisiana. The St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway is a successful, highly visible campaign across the country, generating months of news coverage every year.

'It takes teamwork'

Mack was humble about what they had accomplished, instead thanking others for what they had done. He was proud of Shreveport.

“It takes teamwork to do anything,” Mack often told his children.

Today, the St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway has raffled off 628 houses nationwide, raising about $580 million.

It’s beyond anything Mack could have imagined.

“We had no idea. None,” Aguillard said. She chaired the first St. Jude Dream Home giveaway outside Louisiana, just across the Tennessee state line in Southaven, Mississippi, in 1999, and each one in Tennessee since then.

Her dad marveled at the success, though he would be miffed if other giveaways raised more money than his. “They better not beat my Dream Home,” he’d joke.

Following in dad's footsteps

Like her dad, Aguillard earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University: he in New Orleans, she in Shreveport. She completed her pediatric training at LeBonheur Children's Medical Center through the University of Tennessee, including a five-month rotation at St. Jude.

Her dad would ask her to visit his patients at St. Jude. “Get over there and say ‘hello,'” he would tell her. His patients and their families were delighted by her visits.

Dr. Mack and daughter Susan Mack Aguillard with the St. Jude Hospital statue

Mack stands with daughter Susan Mack Aguillard at the entrance to St. Jude

“They’d say, ‘Oh, you’re Dr. Mack’s daughter!’” Aguillard said. “That was a thrill for me.”

Early on, she wasn’t confident that the outcome for those patients would be good. She joined a pediatric practice in Memphis in 1988 and continued to visit her dad’s patients — and her brother Gene’s patients when he joined their dad’s practice in 1989 — along with her own.

Aguillard has referred probably a dozen patients to St. Jude. She understands the relief her dad had felt.

“You take it somewhat personally if you can’t help a patient,” Aguillard said. “As a pediatrician, it’s kind of a thrill to be able to say, ‘We’re sending you to St. Jude. You’re going to get the best treatment.’”

Like her dad, she counts on St. Jude to save her patients.

The 5-year-old who stumbled into her office with what turned out to be a brain tumor, now in her 30s, sending her a selfie wearing a fancy hat from the Kentucky Derby.

The 8-year-old boy she diagnosed with lymphoma who graduated from college last year.

Wedding invitations. Birth announcements. Holiday cards. All markers of lives being lived.

“There is no greater reward for a doctor,” Aguillard said. Her dad knew that.

“The dark cloud has lifted,” Aguillard said.

Continuing dad's work for St. Jude

Her dad was there when she needed him, from stitching up her left knee when she was 7 and fell off her bicycle to paying her way through medical school.

She’ll be there for him, continuing his work for St. Jude, along with her family and the thousands of volunteers across the country who rallied to his cause.

“It’s a little intimidating following behind him,” Aguillard said, though whenever she saw her dad, he would hug and kiss her and tell her, “You’re doing a great job.”

Like her dad, Aguillard joined the ALSAC/St. Jude boards in 1994 after serving as a National Committee member from 1991 to 1994. Every year, she runs the 5K during St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend.

“It’s what we were taught,” Aguillard said. “We have a responsibility to help others and to do something to make the world better.”

Like her dad, she’s a believer.

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