From the moment Jessica awoke on Christmas morning in 2020 at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she thought about her older sister, Stacy. Thirty-four years earlier, in this very place, Stacy, who’d been a two-time cancer patient at St. Jude, died on Christmas Day at 10 years old.
Several nurses who had cared for the little girl during her two years of treatment for neuroblastoma and leukemia stayed with Stacy and her parents at the end.
Some of those nurses still worked for St. Jude.
Jessica wasn’t there that day because she was so young, only 8 years old. She was staying at her grandparents’ house and had no idea that at 7:15 that Christmas morning in 1986, her only sibling was gone.
After Jessica opened her gifts under the tree, her grandparents urged her to go ahead and open Stacy’s, too, but she refused because what if Stacy got upset?
Finally, her aunt said, “Well, what if I call your parents to make sure it’s alright?”
Jessica said OK.
So, Jessica opened Stacy’s Christmas gifts that day, although she can’t remember anymore what those presents were. A lot of her childhood is like that, she said, with a fuzzed-out space where the harder memories should be.
Later that day, her parents walked inside her grandparents’ house and gently explained to Jessica that Stacy had died.
They went home, and the years passed. They hardly talked about Stacy and the great hurt of what had happened.
Then came 2020. That cataclysmic year.
Jessica’s oldest son, Charlie, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
First her sister, and now her son.
On Christmas Day in 2020, Jessica stood in a doorway on the inpatient floor at St. Jude. When she looked at the little 10-year-old bald child sleeping in the bed, she saw her son, Charlie, but thought to herself: Stacy. They looked so much alike.
How could this be happening to her family again?
Trust in St. Jude
Jessica’s two boys, Beau and Charlie, were being rowdy upstairs that day in summer 2020. It sounded like they were literally slinging their bodies against the walls, with thuds and crashes so loud, they startled her.
“Hey, boys. You guys don’t be crazy up there. We’re not going to the doctor today,” she called up to them, which only made them laugh and play harder.
She couldn’t be too stern with them because this was the sound of a healthy, happy home. With litanies of laughter, a chorus of giggles. A crescendo of noise that could only happen when at least two kids are playing together. Too much quiet was unnatural to the very idea of childhood.
Then there was a crash upstairs and a scream, and Jessica ran upstairs. Three of Charlie’s toes had turned colors from slamming the wall, and his left shoulder hurt a little.
Their doctor in Mississippi determined Charlie’s toes were broken, gave him a boot and scheduled a follow-up.
“I didn’t even think about his shoulder because it wasn’t the thing that was turning colors,” said Jessica.
But in the following weeks, she did think about that shoulder. When Charlie played sports, she noticed he favored his left arm.
At their next doctor’s visit, she asked for an X-ray of Charlie’s shoulder. She jokes now about that visit, calling herself “the hypochondriac in room one.” But something had told her not to ignore that shoulder, and, likewise, the doctor heard a voice inside his head saying, “X-ray him.”
The X-ray showed a hairline fracture and something else – a growth of some kind.
That doctor’s visit led to an orthopedic specialist, which led to MRI and CT scans, which led to an orthopedic oncologist, who said he believed Charlie had a tumor.
He referred Charlie to St. Jude. When they got there, her husband and Charlie walked in first, but for a moment, she felt frozen.
“I remember crying out to God, like, ‘God, I can’t walk in here,’” said Jessica. “But I didn’t have a choice. I had to walk in there. I had to put my trust in St. Jude that his outcome was going to be better than my sister’s outcome.”
He looks like my sister
By Christmas Day of 2020, Charlie had lost all his hair, “except for one sorry eyelash,” said his mom. He’d shed several pounds and seemed to be growing backward – shrinking into himself and getting smaller as the chemotherapy continued its work of aggressively fighting off the cancer.
She’d bought the same size Christmas pajama set for Charlie as for his younger brother, Beau, yet Charlie’s hung off him.
In the months that followed, Charlie would continue with chemotherapy and have a successful surgery to replace the diseased section of bone with a titanium prosthesis. His scans would show no evidence of disease. He would celebrate with a No More Chemo party. He would start school again and ride his bike. His hair would grow back, so that – just to look at him – you couldn’t guess what he’d been through.
Charlie would be OK.
But that was in the future. On Christmas morning in 2020, Charlie was as sick and fragile as Jessica had ever seen him. His outcome was by no means assured.
That’s when one of Charlie’s favorite nurses stopped by. While Charlie slept, the two women got to talking.
“Gosh, he looks like my sister used to look,” said Jessica as she gazed at her son.
Then she said her sister’s name: “Stacy Black,” and the nurse just stared at her.
That’s when Jessica learned that the nurse had known Stacy as a little girl. They had attended the same elementary school. Stacy’s death from cancer had affected her profoundly. She had never forgotten.
The quiet of the hospital room on Christmas Day that had felt so eerie to Jessica a moment before now felt full of light. It was a “God moment,” said Jessica, who thought, “Stacy is here taking care of Charlie.”
And in that moment, she felt certain: Charlie would be OK. Charlie is being protected.
The women started crying, and Charlie slept.
Grabbing childhood back
Charlie saw his orthopedic surgeon at St. Jude from a distance, yelled to get his attention and waved his hands widely in a “Come here” gesture.
Like always, Charlie had an important question. So, his doctor came over.
“Am I more susceptible to being struck by lightning with my titanium shoulder?” Charlie asked him.
No, his doctor replied. You’re safe.
Charlie nodded, satisfied for now.
At 13 years old, Charlie has a burning desire to know everything about his cancer, its treatment and what it might mean for the rest of his life.
When Charlie got a microscope for Christmas in 2022, his St. Jude oncologist made slides for Charlie of his cancer cells. Charlie brought them to school to show his classmates.
Charlie can’t play contact sports, such as football or soccer – “If the ball hits the wrong way, it would shatter his prosthesis,” said Jessica.
So, Charlie has found new activities to play – and new ways to play old activities.
When Charlie decided he wanted to try archery recently, he adapted a style all his own where instead of holding the bow and arrow up to his shoulder, he shoots from lower down.
“Even his coach can’t figure out how he’s able to aim,” said Jessica, “but he does excellent.”
Charlie couldn’t stretch his affected arm enough to reach the handle of his bicycle because of his prosthesis, which meant he couldn’t ride his bike. So, Charlie’s dad flipped his handlebars the other way as an adaptation, and Charlie is riding again.
“This is a new thing. Because if he falls the wrong way, we’ll end up back in the orthopedics office,” said Jessica. “But it’s grabbing another piece of his childhood back away from what the cancer did to him.”
Two healthy boys
Stacy and Jessica’s father, Bill, couldn’t talk about Stacy after her death, but now, with Charlie doing well, Bill can. He and his wife, Vicki, wear their St. Jude shirts, a conversation starter that lets them talk about Charlie being cancer-free and brag on both their grandsons.
“Both Beau and Charlie are doing really well in school and everything,” said Bill. “We’re blessed to have two healthy boys. I call them healthy because they are.”
Bill shares how Charlie is a member of his local Civil Air Patrol and dreams of being a pilot someday. How Charlie loves to play piano and sing at the top of his lungs.
“He is bubbling over everywhere he goes, and he’s like me,” said Bill. “He never meets a stranger.”
And here’s the healing thing: When he tells people about Charlie and St. Jude, he gets to tell them about Stacy, too.
And finally, people know all that he’s held in his heart for nearly 40 years.
Research is the key
In the hallway at St. Jude hang seven plaques in Stacy’s name. Loved ones had donated them in the 1980s, but Vicki and Bill had never seen them.
So, they came back to St. Jude for the first time in decades.
“My husband and I talked about when we saw the plaques, how would we react,” said Vicki.
Would they cry, and if so, would they ever be able to stop?
But it wasn’t like that at all, said Vicki. Being at St. Jude and seeing those plaques was like an acknowledgement that Stacy had existed and that her light still glowed here.
“St. Jude has meant a lot to our family,” said Vicki. “They gave us more years to live with our daughter and to enjoy her each day. And now that our grandson is a St. Jude patient … This place is wonderful. I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
Vicki said it heartens her to know that what St. Jude learned from Stacy continues to help kids today.
“Having a child with cancer,” Vicki said, “that’s not normal. That’s abnormal. And we need to wipe it out. We need to wipe cancer out. The research is the key to it.”
So, the research continues. They’ve never forgotten Stacy, and neither has St. Jude.
When Vicki and Bill looked up at the memorials to Stacy, “It was just such a joyous thing that we were just happy,” said Vicki. “We just smiled, and we touched the plaques and had our picture made with them.
“We had a good time.”