About 18 months ago I attended the funeral of an old and dear St. Jude colleague, Dr. Allan Granoff. He was one of the original department chairs at St. Jude and was an excellent scientist and mentor to many faculty members. I can describe him in one word: he was a mensch, a person of integrity and honor. He was accessible and friendly, a jokester, and an amateur actor. He was liked by all of the staff, both professionals and general workers.
At the funeral there was a large turnout of St. Jude employees and ex-employees. Some of us former employees were so happy to see each other after a long hiatus (I left there 21 years ago) that we talked about a reunion. Since St. Jude's 50th anniversary was in 2012, which generated several celebrations, I decided to try to bring together the “First 25”—that is, people who worked at St. Jude during the first half of its existence (1962-1987).
Remarkably, 170 current employees were initially employed during that period, so 40-year employees are not uncommon. I had tracked down as many ex-employees as I could, but certainly not all, and with the help of St. Jude staff, we identified the current employees who joined St. Jude in that era.
The reunion took place on November 8th and 9th. We had doctors, nurses, pharmacists, electricians, plumbers, cafeteria workers, administrators, lab technicians, widows of former employees, children of former employees, and so forth. In other words, it was an accurate representation of all employees and their families from that era—and not just medical professionals.
What is so special about this reunion? High school and college class reunions are common and are often used as fund-raising events; I have attended many, so why write about this one?
Before I start, I must warn you that my 24 years at St. Jude was the sweet spot of my career and I am very biased in favor of it, so I may be a bit effusive in the storytelling.
A simplistic answer is that St. Jude has a wonderful and pervasive institutional atmosphere; it may not be truly unique, but it is certainly quite rare. It has been present from its earliest years, and despite its enormous growth in the past 50 years, it is still there.
An “atmosphere” is by definition ethereal and therefore difficult to describe. But I shall try to condense what I believe have been important factors in creating the atmosphere.
Danny Thomas had a clear vision of what he wanted St. Jude to be: a medical institution that cared for children with bad diseases at no cost to the patient's family. He spent about seven years raising money and putting together a volunteer team from Memphis and around the country who bought into his vision.
For a decade or more after the hospital opened in 1962, St. Jude had no billing department. Later, at a time of financial stress, the St. Jude Board of Directors asked Danny if the hospital could at least collect health insurance if the patient had it. He declined at first, but finally gave in under one condition: St. Jude could not ask whether the patient had insurance until after the patient had come to the hospital and started treatment. This rule is still in place. Danny came to St. Jude fairly often and made himself accessible to patients and families as well as the staff. His example was absorbed by the staff with a strong sense of pride in the mission.
The first director of St. Jude, Dr. Donald Pinkel, was hired at the age of 34 before the building opened in 1962. He proceeded to lay a foundation for research and a model for patient care and clinical research. He was a terrific mentor for me and many others in the early years. He was (is) an idealist, like Danny, so his standards were very high, and we all became imbued with that attitude.
St. Jude was very small to begin with. Even when I arrived in 1967 there were only about eight pediatric oncologists, one radiation oncologist, and one pathologist; two surgeons worked part time for St. Jude and full time at other hospitals. The entire staff was no more than 100 people.
This environment made it possible for everyone to get to know everyone else. I got to know by name the plumbers, housekeepers, and electricians as well as everyone else. We all ate in the same cafeteria along with patients and their families. In short, it was like an extended family in a small town. Those relationships were an asset for getting things done and for creating a friendly atmosphere that also gave everyone the feeling that they were part of building something important that they could be proud of; it was almost like a religious calling for many employees—most strikingly in the nurses and general staff.
St. Jude, like most children's hospitals, has a unique atmosphere that is absent in general or specialty hospitals that mainly care for adults. Looking past the artwork and colorful paint, one can still detect the difference. The clues are in the presence of children in their mothers' arms, or playing or waiting, the worried look on parents' faces, and the typical behavior of children when they are feeling pretty well. Usually one can detect a more solicitous behavior of the clerical and administrative staff toward patients and families in waiting areas.
All of this has led to lifelong friendships among faculty, staff, and their families. We stay in touch, more or less, but as time goes by contact information is lost—and at our ages, there are inevitable deaths. Thus, the chance to bring together “The First 25” was a joyful experience, just like a family reunion with a lot of catching up to do and people to hug and question about their families. It was certainly worth the effort. So many of the staff in that era made it possible for me and my colleagues to do some very special work on behalf of children with cancer.
For that I am eternally grateful to all of my First 25 colleagues and staff of St. Jude; they all made me and my colleagues look good—all the time being good friends who really loved one another. That is a priceless gift that will never be forgotten by any of us.