“I love my life.” This was the proclamation made by Lizzy Wampler, a 10-year-old former patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the months before her passing.
Jennifer and John Wampler drove several hours through the sleet and rain to get to Memphis, Tenn. for the 31st annual Country Cares Seminar in an effort to keep their daughter’s voice alive by sharing her story to a packed ballroom at the historic Peabody Hotel filled with hundreds of reporters, radio DJs and other media. Jennifer shared that when Lizzy was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, there was “a grief and a pain” their family endured. “Our hearts were literally crushed. We felt like the rug had been pulled out from under us,” she described. “And yet we were engulfed in this hospital of hope.”
Lizzy spent the last 15 months of her life at St. Jude when the conversation with her doctors turned to maintaining her quality of life. “I remember her hearing that and she looked up and she said ‘what do you mean quality of life?’ She just piped up, she said ‘but I love my life,’” Jennifer recalled. “She was in pain from the moment she was diagnosed up until the very end…and yet, St. Jude had created such an atmosphere of normalcy. They invested in her. There is no way a child could be tormented with that much pain and say that she loved her life if it wasn’t for the way St. Jude treated my daughter. We weren’t ever not given hope, to the very end.”
Lizzy’s story of hope is not unlike the thousands of other patients St. Jude has aided since actor Danny Thomas founded the Memphis-based hospital in 1962, vowing to make it a safe place for children all over the world to be treated for such life-threatening diseases as cancer. Walking through the hallways, visitors are greeted by inviting murals depicting comforting scenes of children skating and playing ice hockey in a winter setting while another shows a family picking pumpkins as yellow and orange leaves fall around them. Original artwork created by the patients also adorns the walls. For many of the patients, St. Jude becomes their second home for months or sometimes years, yet no family ever receives a bill at the donation-run hospital where the family atmosphere is cultivated from the doctors to the staff members – like a chef in the cafeteria who goes such lengths as to call one patient’s grandmother to get her special mac and cheese recipe he was craving. “Family is really important here, it doesn’t just have to be blood,” the hospital tour guide asserts.
The majority of these donations come through St. Jude’s fundraising program, Partner in Hope, comprised of donors who give $19 or more a month. The “lifeblood” of St. Jude, as President and CEO of St. Jude’s fundraising arm ALSAC Richard Shadyac Jr. calls them. Many of these donors are reached through the annual Country Cares for St. Jude Radiothon that takes place across the U.S. in December. During nearly 100 country radiothons in December 2019, 33,000 people signed on to be a Partner in Hope, one of the many ways the country music community has impacted the hospital’s life-saving mission. “There is no industry that has had a more significant impact on a charitable endeavor than the country music industry,” Shadyac stated to members of the media at 2020 Country Cares.
In the U.S., St. Jude’s research has raised childhood cancer survival rates from 20 percent in 1962 to 80 percent in present day, and thanks to Country Cares, founded by Alabama lead singer Randy Owen in 1989, more than $800 million has been raised for St. Jude. Another country act who’s also been a longtime supporter of the hospital is Brad Paisley, who calls St. Jude “the place that I believe gives country music it’s purpose and it’s heart, and it’s all because of Randy.” Paisley, Owen and Brett Young performed an acoustic singer-songwriter round during the Country Cares closing night dinner where Paisley invited cancer survivor and former St. Jude patient Addie Pratt, whom he met at a previous Country Cares, to join him for an inspiring performance of his new song, “Alive Right Now.”
Paisley also channeled his passion for St. Jude into his ABC special, Brad Paisley Thinks He’s Special, where he invited Pratt, a songwriter and student at Ole Miss, to perform “Alive Right Now” with him. “The greatest example, I think, of what humankind is capable of is this hospital. And when you’re going to sing about being happy to be alive in these times, who better to do that than someone who has been through St. Jude and back again,” he remarked, driving home the meaning of the song by inviting Pratt on stage for a moving performance. “That night was incredible in and of itself, but I never knew that it would turn into this huge, amazing blessing,” Pratt shared with Sounds Like Nashville and other media on the red carpet about meeting Paisley years prior.
The money raised through Country Cares, along with the generous donations from people around the world, has helped St. Jude make such groundbreaking discoveries as the cure for the severe autoimmune illness known as Bubble Boy disease. A new multi-million dollar research center that is one of the largest medical complexes being built in the U.S. is currently underway, projected to open in 2021. The hospital is also expanding its housing development that will offer three bedroom apartments for families staying at St. Jude for more than three months. But the hospital’s ultimate goal is to cure at least 60 percent of children who have the six most common types of cancers worldwide by 2030.
It all contributes to St. Jude’s mission of hope for people like seven-year-old Londyn, a current St. Jude patient. Londyn was taken to St. Jude at the age of five where she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. After two years and 13 cycles of radiation over the course of six months, the tumor that had formed behind Londyn’s eye has shrunk from the size of her father Justin’s first to that of a pea. Throughout her journey, Londyn has become one of St. Jude’s stars, featured in a commercial alongside Michael Strahan while Justin is lovingly known around the hospital as “Londyn’s dad.”
“To have your baby girl go through this and to have ALSAC and St. Jude give this silver lining that we don’t know the outcome of our kids that are here and we would like to know that they’re going to flourish and live to be 70,” Justin shared with a room full of reporters during the patients’ interview at Country Cares. “So it’s nice to know that my little girl is getting to do things that we could never give her, and it’s all because of this right here.”
Country music has also played a role in Londyn’s healing process. Londyn was chosen to curate a patient playlist through St. Jude’s partnership with Apple Music, which included one of her favorite songs, Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel.” After Londyn treated the room to an adorable performance of the song, her father revealed that such upbeat music served as a support system as she went through chemotherapy. “A lot of times when she was doing chemo and things, these songs got her through her hardest days of chemo from screaming in the bathroom because her whole body was aching and she would feel like she was on fire,” he details, adding that Londyn and her family continue to sing “Wagon Wheel” as a source of comfort.
Like Lizzy and her family, it’s this feeling of comfort and hope that Justin felt the moment they walked through the doors at St. Jude, giving a sense of that impact by asking the hundreds of people in the room to shout “hope” in unison. “That’s the feeling that I got when we came here, was that joyous feeling that everybody’s hollering ‘hope.’ This yell of everybody here, in our hearts and in our minds hollers ‘hope’ and we knew that St. Jude had my daughter. Because of you all here, we were here at five and now she’s seven and every time we get done with scans, I look at the doctor and I say ‘that’s two’ and she says ‘what’s two?’” he says gratefully. “’This is two years here, and I’m ready to see you for many more.'”
For more information or to donate to St. Jude, visit the official website.