Over MLK weekend, I drove three hours west to Memphis for my first ever visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. As a Tennessean, you grow up hearing all about Danny Thomas and the amazing things he did in his lifetime for kids with childhood cancer. But rarely do you get to witness the magic yourself.
I got introduced to Country Cares back in September, when I covered an event at the Grand Ole Opry. It was then that the PR team invited me out to the annual country radio seminar to see for myself just what the organization is all about—and how country music plays a part.
We didn’t waste much time at all after checking in on Friday morning. The weekend kicked off with one of the doctors speaking about palliative care (*waterworks*) and then we headed over to the campus to get the lay of the land.
And it didn’t take me long—not more than an hour or two, to be exact—to experience my first “St. Jude moment.”
I already adored the Band Perry—seriously, have you seen them perform? Kimberly might be right up there with TSwift as far as girl crushes go for me—but then I witnessed this candid moment and my heart melted into a puddle.
It unfolded like this: Country Weekly editor Jon and I were getting a tour of the hospital from our PR gal Jordan when TBP rounded the corner. Polite to a tee—they are Southern, after all—Kimberly, Neil and Reid all said hi to us, and we exchanged pleasantries when a woman with a shaved head came rushing down the hallway wheeling a small girl in a red wagon with IVs protruding from her arms.
“We’ve been looking everywhere for you!” the mother said. Kimberly and her brothers kneeled down to talk to the small girl, who was clearly smitten by them (I don’t think I would have recognized any band at just four years old!). She was wearing a Frozen nightgown.
Kimberly then cooed, “do you like Elsa or Anna?” The little girl, predictably, was an Elsa fan and Kimberly said everyone chooses Elsa but that she likes them both equally. Then she suggested they take some pictures, and the little girl and the Perry siblings got their selfies on. It was beyond adorable.
That afternoon, there was a carnival in the Peabody Hotel where patients who were strong enough to leave the hospital came and mingled with the artists. I chatted up Gloriana, Jackie Lee and the Perry siblings. And, OK, busted out a few Emoji poses when the situation called for it.
Other musicians in attendance were a Thousand Horses, Native Run, Olivia Lane, Josh Dorr and plenty more up-and-comers. I even watched Olivia and Country Cares founder Randy Owen do a little karaoke with a patient, as Jackie got his Thriller dance on beside them.
Saturday was full of seminars and talks from people like Captain Sully and the patients of several parents. The event closed out on Saturday night when Randy, John Oates (of Hall and Oates), and Jon Randall (who wrote “Whiskey Lullaby”) and his wife Jessi Alexander (who penned “The Climb” and Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck”) took the stage and played a writers’ round. It was the perfect end to the perfect weekend (one where I cried no fewer than four times, it must be said).
But St. Jude does cool things every day of the year, not just when they’re hosting 1,000 country radio professionals as a pep rally of sorts to prepare them for upcoming radiothons.
Here are some really awesome nuggets of info about the organization that I don’t think the average public knows:
1) Chef Miles McMath makes hospital food fun. I had the honor of grabbing coffee with Miles on Friday and heard all about his philosophy. He’ll make the kids anything they want (like crab legs or a shrimp boil)—no matter to what lengths he must go to source ingredients—as his goal is to get food in patients’ bellies, particularly when many of them are so sick they don’t feel like eating. He serves all grass-fed beef in the facility’s Kay Cafe, has a garden on campus where he grows many of the ingredients and has food trucks to stop by during lunch hours. His whole philosophy is that he doesn’t cook “hospital food,” and even the kids who can’t leave their rooms to eat in the cafe order off of a room service menu and are served from a silver platter. So awesome.
2) Kids don’t miss major milestones because they can’t be in school. St. Jude puts on a prom, among other fun activities for the patients. There’s also a school sponsored by Target that allows the patients to stay on track with their texts and curriculum and even go through kindergarten, middle school and high school graduations at St. Jude so they don’t miss out on the experiences.
3) Musicians and other notable names are always stopping by to visit the patients. Recent guests include Hillary Clinton, Katy Perry and the FLOTUS herself.
4) There are three awesome short-term stay facilities, each decorated to the nines and boutique hotel-style instead of feeling like you’re in a hospital.
5) St. Jude boasts 182 research labs. That’s a whole lot of scientists working to eradicate childhood cancer!
6) The organization treats 7,800 patients a year, and there are 78 patient beds in the hospital itself.
7) The staff tries to keep things as normal—and fun—as possible for the kids. The Legacy Program is one such component: There are 57 different beads, and kids earn them by passing mile markers, such as the biggie—completing chemo.
8) They engage the patients’ siblings, too. St. Jude recognizes how hard it is to be the family member of a child with cancer, so they have a Sibling Program, a brother and sister bead with the Legacy Program, a Sibling Day, a Day of Remembrance and other activities aimed at the siblings to make them feel included.
9) The child life specialists help patients adapt to taking so many meds by starting them off with swallowing Nerds, then Tic-Tacs, then a placebo until they’ve become pros at taking pills. They also have medical play dolls with ports, lines, the works to help explain what the patients are going through in terms to which they can relate.
10) Another Chef Miles creation, he had a research team at the University of Memphis make up Pediasure gummy bears that were actually tasty and kids wanted to eat; this is a fun way for them to get their medicine.
11) Interaction with canines are scientifically proven to lower people’s blood pressure and anxiety. On Doggy Daze, therapy dogs are brought in so the patients can pet, cuddle and play with them.
13) St. Jude has just about every kind of medical specialist a kid could need—like an orthodontist and an optometrist—so all of those regular checkups are also taken care of while they’re patients.
14) The most important part of all: No family pays. From medical treatment to travel to accommodation, St. Jude pays for it all. Which is why donations are so crucial to this awesome organization staying afloat. It costs $2 million a day just to run the place. Can you even believe it?
One thing I learned while there was that everyone seems to have a “St. Jude moment,” even if you’ve never visited the Memphis campus. Mine was no doubt seeing Kimberly Perry and the four-year-old patient chat Frozen without a care in the world. If you’re lucky enough to have one, what’s yours?