That Girl's Crusade
Cake, confetti, unheard-of cure rates. Marlo Thomas talks about the miraculous hospital her father founded.In May 1991, actress Marlo Thomas sat in the driveway of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a large white building on the outskirts of Memphis. It had been three months since the death of her father, actor Danny Thomas, the founder of St. Jude, and she couldn't bring herself to go inside. "I thought it would be too painful," she says. "I missed my father so much, and the place felt like him." But Thomas forced herself out of her car and through the hospital doors.
She walked straight into a raucous party—children ran between the confetti-strewn rooms, their faces smeared with cake; the weaker kids were pushed around in red wagons, the hospital's wheelchair alternative. Though Thomas had toured its halls before, she'd never witnessed St. Jude's daily approach to care. "Whose birthday is it?" she asked a nurse. "It's not a birthday party," the nurse said. "It's an off-chemo party."
Soon after, Thomas—along with her brother, Tony, and sister, Terre—took up her father's cause. As the public relations crusader for the research hospital, she now represents it to potential donors and to the general public, using the accomplishments of St. Jude's scientists as her main selling point. Among their victories: raising the cure rate of the most common childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, from 4 percent to 86 percent, developing a cure for sickle-cell anemia, and performing safety trials of an HIV vaccine. All of this in a hospital that turns no patient away, even if the bill can't be paid. "It's not a quiet, secretive place where doctors are gods and patients subjects at their mercy. Here everyone eats in the same cafeteria," says Marlo. "The energy snaps." In fact, Thomas has come to consider the hospital home, the patients family. "I've held dying children in my arms," she says. "I never thought I'd be able to handle that. But I've also attended the graduations and weddings of some of St. Jude's many success stories." A Bolivian girl who came to the hospital a few years ago with a tumor on her spine now sends Thomas photographs of herself in her high school uniform. "We must not ignore suffering," says Thomas. "We must make sure that nobody else loses a child."
With that in mind, Thomas, author of the best-selling book and album Free to Be…You and Me, came up with her latest brainchild, Thanks & Giving, a children's book and accompanying CD of stories and poems from famous names like Julianne Moore, Tiger Woods and Shel Silverstein. All royalties—Thomas hopes to raise millions—will go to the revolutionary research and care St. Jude is known for. "The idea is for people to give thanks for the kids in their lives who are healthy, and to give to the children who are not," says Thomas. "The book is meant to be entertaining, and to leave kids with my father's message. He said, 'In this world, there are givers and takers. The takers sometimes eat better, but the givers always sleep better.'"