Delaware school counselor: St. Jude saved my life then inspired it

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MAGNOLIA, Delaware — I was 3, almost 4 years old, when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It was stage IV, the most advanced stage, and doctors at our hometown hospital said I had about 36 hours to live.

When they didn’t think I’d survive through the night, my parents snuck my younger siblings up the fire escape to see me one last time.

I tell you this story today as a 45-year-old cancer survivor, thanks to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where I was sent as a last hope. But they didn’t just save my life at St. Jude. They inspired every aspect of it — even my chosen career.

Or should I say, especially my career?

I’m a public school guidance counselor, and a private health consultant, in Delaware, where I’ve lived since just before the start of my teenage years. I help people cope with their problems — middle-schoolers with depression and anxiety, even suicidal ideation; adults with health conditions from diabetes to cancer — by drawing on the ways St. Jude helped me cope with mine.

When I teach someone to use visualization or other mental skills techniques, I remember how I’d stare at my Snoopy stuffed animal during chemotherapy treatments at St. Jude, to take my mind to some happier place.

Of course, St. Jude was, for me, a happy place, a hopeful place. It wasn’t just a hospital and I wasn’t just patient No. 6,803. I was Tony — as St. Jude founder Danny Thomas himself called me, remembering my name, three years after we first met on campus. I was family.

The memories come rushing back. I remember — vividly, still — how terrifying it was to hear the sound of the cart clicking on the floor tiles, approaching my room. That clicking sound meant one thing to me: a spinal tap. Even before the cart reached my room, I’d start to panic and cry. I’d start to hyperventilate.

United States of St. Jude - Delaware - Dr. John ‘Tony’ DeVary

Tony and wife Salina.

Then, after I explained what was happening, they began carrying the needles and vials they needed for the procedure, instead of transporting them on the cart. It may seem like a small thing, but to a scared little boy it was the greatest gift. I’m still grateful, all these years later.

And I remember Nerf gun battles, and the security guard who would always hide a porcelain frog in a different spot in the garden, for patients to find.

I remember the little red wagons with the IV poles attached. If my platelets were high enough, I could travel in style.

I remember all those small moments that helped get me through the days — magic tricks and bad jokes. Whatever it would take, really, to make a hurting little boy smile.

And I was hurting. This was the late 1970s, before many of the scientific advances that have improved treatments and eased side effects that can plague patients into adulthood. It took three years to achieve remission. I weighed only 17 pounds when I arrived at St. Jude, and grew very little during my time there.

I was fed with a tube, through which everything looked like milk. I had blown veins in my arms, from all the needle sticks during chemotherapy treatments; so they started sticking my feet. At one point, I contracted chicken pox — potentially fatal to someone in my condition.

All these years later, I’m still dealing with the effects. I grew to only 5-feet tall, which was tough to handle as a teenager when my little brother and sister shot past me. It’s still difficult to draw blood because of all the scar tissue from those needle sticks. I can’t stand to drink milk, even now, because of the memory it evokes of the feeding tube. And I have to wear dentures because my teeth crack — yet another side effect of treatment.

But you know what? I have my life, and my life is good. It's more than good. I’m a father — despite concerns that I wouldn’t be able to have children, post-cancer. I’m a husband. And my life’s work — helping people with their problems — is inspired every day by the place that saved my own life, the place that shaped me as a person, and sent me out into the world with a hopeful message.

I have a doctorate in sport and performance psychology. But being treated at St. Jude was an education in itself, filled with lessons in love, compassion and hope that even a small child could absorb.

Or should I say, especially a small child?

No, St. Jude didn’t just save a little boy who was once given 36 hours to live, whose siblings made that fire-escape trek to see him one last time. St. Jude has been with me, for life. I returned into my teenage years for checkups and routine scans. As an adult, I visit campus every few years for the St. Jude LIFE Study, which brings long-term survivors back for regular screenings that help doctors learn more about the late effects of treatment.

And just a few years ago, when I found out that a grapefruit-size brain tumor was growing in my head, the apparent result of the radiation I received as a child, St. Jude was there again. Even though it was 27 years later, St. Jude worked collaboratively with doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, helping save my life again.

Thank God for St. Jude, I always say.

And thank St. Jude for the person I’ve become, the life I’m able to live, and for the help and hope I’m able to pass on to others who are hurting.

Dr. John ‘Tony’ DeVary is a Delaware middle-school guidance counselor approaching his 25th year in public education. He also works privately as a health consultant.

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