Interview and feature story by Vicki Salemi
Ok, as a Manhattanite and a single diva in the city, it’s ironic that I write a lot about parenting. So when you combine it with my other passions to write about – entertainment and health, I couldn’t have been more psyched to represent Role Mommy at this splendiferous event!
The place? Brooks Brothers, dah-ling. Yes, as in the classic, tasteful store on Madison Avenue right near Grand Central Station. The purpose? A celebration to benefit the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the world’s premier centers for the research and treatment of pediatric cancer and other catastrophic diseases.
Whenever I gallivant to press events there’s always a juicy story just waiting to be found but in this instance, the story found me. After Marlo Thomas read a story with children and they sang holiday songs, I was in queue to interview her. In the meantime, I met a St. Jude’s patient and then chatted with her mother. Be still my heart.
Emily Kryger will turn eleven in January and when I asked her mother, Donna of North Rockland (about 45 minutes north of Manhattan), what St. Jude means to her, she started tearing up. “I’ll try to do this without crying,” she says. “St. Jude saved her life and not only did they save her life, they saved her quality of life.”
Emily, whose favorite subject is social studies and recently made the honor roll in the fifth grade, is in remission. Donna notes that Emily, her first born, was two years old when diagnosed with a brain tumor. Everyone was saying you can’t radiate a child under three years old, she’ll be brain damaged and learning disabled and St. Jude said, “No, that’s not true.” Essentially, after hearing about St. Jude and their suggestions in saying the tumor she had would not have responded to chemotherapy anyway, you can indeed radiate her, we can do it without leaving her with lasting effects, she felt it was the right thing to do. “It was like divine intervention.”
In essence, Emily ended up going through radiation and suffered some residual effects like having a paralyzed right vocal chord and hearing loss in her right ear but Donna owes everything to St. Jude which is why they attended the event. “We try to bring awareness to St. Jude whenever it’s in the area. Besides saving my daughter’s life, I never got a bill from them, they never asked for any money, they took whatever my insurance gave.. You hear about sick children and medical bills just crumble them. Financially you would never even know that we went what we went through. They took whatever we had and never asked for anything else, it’s totally run by donations. This is our way of giving back.”
As my interview concluded with Donna and I was all set to interview Marlo, I became more fascinated with this research hospital that has literally transformed lives. When it opened its doors in 1962, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer, was four percent. As for today? The survival rate is 94 percent! During the past three years, 84 cents of every dollar received supports the research and treatment at St. Jude. Plus, no child is ever denied treatment because of a family’s inability to pay.
As children enjoyed balloon animals made by Todd Neufield, cookie and ornament decorating, and spectacular performances by Wynton Marsalis and The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble, Brooks Brothers customers were in for an even better treat. Ten percent of the evening’s net sales were donated to St. Jude. Continuing through January 2nd, Brooks Brothers’ retail and factory stores nationwide will participate in the Thanks and Giving campaign by adding a donation to St. Jude at the time of purchase.
So, without further ado, I turned to Marlo and asked, “I just interviewed a Mom and she started tearing up and she said everything. So, what does it mean to you?”
Marlo: “Well, I guess everything. What it means to me is that a mother would say that. That children come there so frightened and their parents are so scared, they’ve been told that their child has four months to live their cure is inoperable but they have to have their arm amputated. And they come to St. Jude and they find hope. We don’t save every child but we save so many children that would not have ever made it if they hadn’t come to St. Jude.”
Role Mommy: Have there been one or two stories over the years that really tugged at your heart?
Marlo: So many of them…a couple of months ago I was in the medicine room and this little 6 year-old boy jumped on a bench and he said, “Mommy, I don’t have cancer any more!” And all of us were crying. There’s a child who actually knew what was wrong with him, struggling, fighting for his life and gets the news that he doesn’t have it any more. It’s pretty phenomenal.
Role Mommy: Can you talk a little bit about the Thanks and Giving campaign? (She created it five years ago with her siblings, Terry and Tony Thomas).
Marlo: The campaign goes through Christmas and is a way of donating to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital via various merchants or the St. Jude website (www.stjude.org). It’s really saying to people everywhere give thanks to the healthy children in your lives and give to those who are not healthy. You do that by shopping in all the stores, Brooks Brothers, Kmart, CVS, Sterling K Jewelers, Ann Taylor, Domino’s Pizza, William Sonoma, go to those stores. They’re going to ask you to make a donation, a dollar, five dollars, whatever you can afford. And also, go to our website (www.stjude.org) and you can make a donation there…learn some stories about the patients and once you get into it and see what we do, it’s almost irresistible not to help out.
Role Mommy: What’s next for St. Jude?
Marlo: We’re very much into genomics right now. Being able to take the child’s DNA, figure out which gene is causing the cancer, and then target those mutated genes with drugs that will cure.
Role Mommy: What’s the key to balancing it all?
Marlo: I think you have to keep shifting your priorities. People who say well, this is my priority. It’s not really true. Every day your priorities change. Some days there’s nothing more important than your children. Some days there’s nothing more important than your husband and other days there’s nothing more important than getting food on the table.
Ok, I’ll do a little this day and a little of this tomorrow without thinking it’s a particular percentage for this part of your life. Give yourself a break. If this is the day you’re going to let your work go and be with your family, then do it without feeling guilty. The problem is women have a terminal guilt problem. You can’t do it all at the same time.
Role Mommy: What are the secrets to a happy, long lasting marriage? (Marlo has been married to Phil Donahue for almost thirty years!)
Marlo: Listening and being observant. Being very careful with each other so you’re not forcing someone to do something you’re way. It took me about ten years of marriage to figure that out, just like you would with a child you love. Give your spouse some love, some room to make a mistake without telling them. I think we do that as spouses, we think we know what’s best.
Photo caption: Marlo Thomas joined St. Jude patient Daniel and Brooks Brothers’ Chairman & CEO Claudio Del Vecchio, to celebrate St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s 6th annual Thanks and Giving campaign, a holiday fundraising and awareness program running until the end of the year. Brooks Brothers held a store-wide celebration featuring performances by Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center and the cast of Broadway’s “Memphis,” and a visit with Santa himself. 10% of the evenings net sales were donated to St. Jude.
For more information, visit www.stjude.org.
Interview and feature story by Vicki Salemi