Non-profit News

Curing Childhood Cancer, One Muraled Hallway at a Time

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Facebook memories usually just pop up to remind us how nerdy we were in past years, but that wasn’t the case when one recently popped up on Monica May’s page. This was a particularly touching moment — something that still brings tears to her eyes when she mentions it.

It was seven years ago when Monica and her son, Blake, then 2, were walking the halls of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital during his seven-month stay, where he being was treated for leukemia. When he was done with the tests and treatments for the day, a doctor pulled Blake to the side and let him pick out a toy from the toy chest. In 2-year-old boy fashion, Blake went for the ball.

The doctor stopped working and started playing catch with Blake. Monica thought it would just be for a moment because surely this doctor had other patients to attend to, but it wasn’t. For a full five minutes, the doctor played catch with the toddler. Then some nurses walked up. Monica thought they were coming to find the MIA doctor.

But she was wrong about that, too.

“They put their stuff down and joined in, and all four of them just sat there and threw the ball in the middle of the hallway for another five minutes,” Monica said. “This doctor literally stopped what he was doing for 10 minutes to play with my kid. He wasn’t asking me extra questions, wasn’t making it into a clinic visit. … It just shows how much they love the kids.”

Monica’s husband, David, said the doctors and nurses went “above and beyond every step of the way.”

There are very few things the entire world can agree on, but helping sick children is right up there at the top of everyone’s must-do list. St. Jude boasts they have some of the top-rated children’s oncologists and researchers from across the world. Together they’ve increased the childhood cancer success rate from 20 percent in 1980 to 80 percent today.

Monica said you can regularly hear people talking in different languages because teams have come from all over the world to do research at St. Jude.

While the minds at work to cure childhood cancer are no doubt the best part of St. Jude, it’s all the little extras that stood out to Monica, David and Blake. Fighting cancer is only part of the battle, the other parts include boosting morale, keeping a toddler still while doctors poke and prod him, and helping terrified parents deal with everything that is happening.

Scary Moments

Blake was born with Down syndrome, and that puts him at a higher risk for some diseases like cancer. When he was 2 years old, his mother noticed bloody drool on his pillow when he woke up some mornings. She wasn’t too concerned until the day he was scheduled to go to the pediatrician to have everything checked out. That morning, Monica woke him up and noticed a rash all over his body.

It looked like a heat rash, but turned out to be petechiae — tiny blood vessels that had burst due to low platelets. The doctor ran some tests, and the results were conclusive: Blake had leukemia.

The doctor sent the Mays over to the St. Jude clinic in Huntsville Hospital, but they weren’t equipped to handle Blake’s particular case. Instead, they put Monica and Blake on an ambulance to Memphis, to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Blake and Monica would stay for the next seven months. David followed behind the ambulance with a suitcase full of clothes, not knowing what to expect next.

“We’ve never known really what St. Jude does,” David said. “I’ve seen them ask for donations here and there, but I’ve never known anything about St. Jude. I just knew they were a hospital that helped kids.

Kid-Run Hospital

Once the Mays got to Memphis, they realized just how much St. Jude helped families of sick children.

St. Jude hospital is one of the only truly free healthcare options in the country. Everything from Monica’s place to stay — the Target house — to a Kroger gift card for them to go buy groceries when they got tired of the cafeteria, was free.

“Even if it was a hospital that required for us to pay for our visits there, I would still go there, because … multiple nurses there said to me, ‘We’re not here for our jobs. We’re here for the kids.’ They are there for the children, and it’s very evident,” Monica said.

“It’s like the kids run the hospital,” David added. “They bend over backwards for the kids.”

All of the children at St. Jude have some kind of serious illness and are dealing with the stress of an extended hospital stay. To make it easier, the staff has constant activities to keep everyone entertained.

There’s play-till-you-win-something Bingo, the Tiger Woods Library, the Shaun White game room full of Xboxes, benches and gardens in addition to the murals painted along every hallway. Monica said her favorite mural was the hallway that took passers-by through the different seasons.

“They make everything fun for the kids,” Monica said.

Just to give you an idea of how everything works at the hospital, Monica detailed how her days were scheduled. She and Blake would arrive from the Target House, an apartment building designed for families of long-term St. Jude patients, where she was greeted by the staff with an armband and printed out schedule.

From there, she knew exactly where to have Blake at every moment.

Every day they gave the children snack packs full of kid-approved items. This was a particular favorite for Blake because it included Goldfish crackers — one of his favorite snacks.

Even the free housing St. Jude offers goes above and beyond. Their area in the Target house was a furnished, two-bedroom apartment that included everything from a kitchenette to a weekly cleaning service. Since children undergoing chemotherapy have a weakened immune system, they have to be extra careful about germs.

Monica mentioned that Blake went the whole seven months without any kind of infection, a big win for both their cleaning skills and the St. Jude atmosphere.

Cancer-Free and Giving Back

After seven months in Memphis, Blake was released and pronounced cancer-free. Their treatment didn’t end when they left, though. Monica could call the clinic and ask anything if she ever had a concern. Right after he was released, Blake’s eyesight started to fail. Monica called to make sure it wasn’t a side effect of the chemotherapy. It wasn’t. Blake just needed glasses.

The doctors and nurses at St. Jude know the parents are still scared, so they take the time to answer any and all questions they might have after they bring their child home. Even questions about glasses.

Blake goes back for once-a-year checkups just to make sure everything going smoothly, but that doesn’t make him any less a member of the St. Jude family. During his 2018 checkup, Monica and Blake ran into the doctor who had treated him as a toddler. Not only did the doctor remember Blake, he remembered his brother and the rest of the family.

“He remembers us out of all of his patients seven years later,” Monica said. “They’re such an amazing facility.”

Thankfully, their long days at St. Jude are just a memory to pop up on social media every now and then. These days, Blake is a healthy, happy, 9-year-old boy. While his parents are downstairs, you can hear the thump, thump, thump upstairs — the sound that mothers of boys have come to understand means they’re playing hard.

David, sporting a St. Jude t-shirt even seven years after Blake’s last treatment, said, “We are lifetime St. Jude supporters now because they saved our son’s life.”

We’re so glad they did. Play hard and grow up strong, Blake.

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