St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital | History, Operation, Research, & Fundraising (2024)

pediatric hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, United States

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Michele Metych Michele has a B.A. in English from Southeast Missouri State University and an M.A. from DePaul University. She's a Chicago girl at heart, but she still misses living in a place with farms. When she's not...

Michele Metych

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Article History

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the leading pediatric hospitals and health care charities in the United States. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, located in Memphis, Tennessee, specializes in the treatment of children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases, defined as conditions for which medical expenses exceed a significant portion of a family’s annual income and are not covered by health insurance or state or federal programs. When the facility opened in 1962, it was the first hospital in the southern United States to be completely integrated, where children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds shared spaces.

Historical developments

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was founded by American entertainer Danny Thomas as a fulfillment of a prayer he made to the patron saint of hopeless causes, St. Jude, while visiting a Roman Catholic church in Detroit in 1940. At the time, Thomas and his wife were struggling financially and were expecting their first child. He was so moved by the service at the church that he donated his last $7 to its cause. Soon after, he landed a better-paying gig to support his growing family. Two years later he again prayed to St. Jude, and he promised that he would give back to people in need in the saint’s name when he was able. Thomas soon found international success as a radio, television, and film performer and landed his own TV show in 1953.

In the early 1950s Thomas began to conceptualize St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and by 1955 he had engaged business leaders in Memphis to assist in fundraising efforts. Friends of Thomas’s and other celebrities also contributed. Thomas, whose parents were Lebanese immigrants, also called upon the immigrant community for financial assistance, an effort that coalesced into the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), which continues to operate as the fundraising sector of St. Jude.

Admission

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has 73 beds, with the ability to expand to 80, and treats more than 8,000 patients each year. At the main hospital in Memphis, patients are accepted for treatment based on a physician’s referral; insurance coverage and other means to pay for treatment are not considered as criteria for admission. Rather, admission generally is based on whether a patient has a disease that is treated at the hospital and on the patient’s age. In general, patients must be 21 or younger; in the case of certain cancers, such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), and noncancerous blood disorders, patients must be younger than 18. For certain solid tumors, such as brain tumors, or unique cases, patients as old as 25 may be considered. Because research is a major focus at the hospital, many patients are admitted based on their eligibility to participate in a clinical trial.

Through the St. Jude Affiliate Program, patients may be able to receive treatment at one of eight affiliated hospitals, located in the Midwest and the southern United States. Although a physician’s referral is still required, the affiliate hospitals have slightly different admission criteria. For example, children may be admitted regardless of their ability to enroll in a clinical trial.

Contributions to childhood cancer treatment

In 1962 the survival rate for childhood cancer in the United States was about 20 percent; by 2023 that figure had increased to more than 80 percent. Part of this increase was attributed to advancements in treatment pioneered at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Indeed, research at St. Jude has resulted in important medical advancements in childhood cancer treatment. With a breakthrough publication in 1972, for example, the hospital revolutionized the treatment of childhood leukemia, showing that the combined use of chemotherapy and prophylactic radiation of the central nervous system—part of an approach known as total therapy—increased ALL survival rates to 50 percent. By 2006, St. Jude reported a five-year survival rate of 94 percent for children with ALL.

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Among other research endeavors, in 2010 the hospital launched the Pediatric Cancer Genome Project in collaboration with Washington University. The goal of the project was to sequence the genomes of more than 600 pediatric cancer patients to learn about the genetic background and origins of pediatric cancers. By the conclusion of the project, researchers had sequenced the genomes of about 800 patients with pediatric cancer. Sequencing of specific portions of the genome was carried out on an additional 1,200 patients. In 2015 a published analysis of the research showed that about 1 in 10 pediatric cancer patients carries a mutation in a gene associated with an increased risk of developing cancer.

In 2021 St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a partnership known as the Global Platform for Access to Childhood Cancer Medicines. The effort is partially funded by annual donations of $200 million from St. Jude. The hospital will provide cancer medicines and treatment knowledge to low- and middle-income countries, where the survival rate for childhood cancers is about 30 percent.

Fundraising

Treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital includes the cost of co-pays and deductibles for patients’ insurance. As many as 90 percent of patients who are admitted to the hospital have some form of insurance coverage, enabling the hospital to be reimbursed for a portion of treatment costs. However, remaining costs must be covered in other ways, including, primarily, through fundraising.

Many of the hospital’s fundraising efforts feature celebrity spokespeople and patients, and the majority of donations the hospital receives are from private individuals. The hospital’s efforts to raise money are often hugely successful. For example, the average individual donation is about $30. In 2020 alone the organization raised $2 billion. In the early 2020s the charity had approximately $5 billion in reserves, enough to fund programs for about four years. About half of donated funds are spent directly on patient care and research.

Although St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital never bills patients, criticism of the strict limits on expenses covered by the hospital has led to reforms. In 2022, for instance, the hospital changed the way stipends for food and housing are awarded after families of patients reported suffering financial hardship because of costs associated with traveling to Memphis and remaining there for the duration of a child’s treatment. In addition, the hospital often refers caregivers to smaller local charities for assistance with utility bills, housing, and travel to and from the hospital.

Michele Metych

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital | History, Operation, Research, & Fundraising (2024)

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