Photo courtesy of St. Jude.

For Kids Spending Christmas At St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Plenty Of Magic

By Lindsey Alsup
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Everyone hopes to be home for the holidays — there’s something innately comforting about the warm embrace of family and the traditions you keep with them, from decorating cookies for Santa to seeking out the best Christmas light displays. For children facing cancer or other life-threatening diseases, being in treatment during the holidays can be particularly difficult because they are missing out on those familiar comforts of home and the traditions shared there.

I know what it’s like to not be home for Christmas.

In November 1991, when other kids were dreaming of the holidays, I began to feel weak. Cold and flu season was starting to make its unwelcome arrival at my school and I thought that I had picked up whatever was working its way through my class. As my peers recovered, I continued to struggle with a lack of appetite and unexpected bruises. I was so fatigued that I had difficulty keeping my head up in class and would nap during recess instead of playing on the swings with my friends.

Finally, a visit to the doctor revealed something far more serious than a cold… I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

Cancer.

At 10 years old, I felt like cancer would steal everything from me — not just Christmas, but the opportunity to grow up, and have a lifetime of holidays to celebrate.

The hospital gave my parents the greatest gift — the ability to focus on helping me live.

Fortunately, my pediatrician referred me to a place of hope: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Less than 24 hours after being diagnosed with cancer, my family and I entered the doors of St. Jude for the very first time. Not only were we immediately surrounded with support, we were astonished to learn that we would not have to pay St. Jude for anything. Not for treatment, travel, housing, or food. In that way, the hospital gave my parents the greatest gift — the ability to focus on helping me live.

Photo courtesy of St. Jude.

Cancer doesn’t take a day off for Christmas, which means many families like mine are at the hospital for the holidays. St. Jude sees about 8,500 active patients every year, most of whom are treated on an outpatient basis. The hospital treats upwards of 277 patients each day.

What always comforts families is that St. Jude doesn’t look like a typical hospital, with its colorful murals, giant aquariums and other kid-friendly features.

Even though we came to St. Jude around the holiday season, we were surrounded by a brand-new family, our St. Jude doctors, nurses and fellow patients. Although we were far from home, we found love within the halls of St. Jude. Festive decorations throughout the hospital and staff members who were quick to entertain me with songs that included kazoo solos ensured that joy was everywhere. Our family discovered St. Jude was not only dedicated to finding cures and saving children, they also wanted to ensure I could still have the joy and celebration of every moment of childhood, including Christmas.

Since opening its doors in 1962, St. Jude has always put patients and their families first. And just as new treatments have been pioneered and new programs introduced to holistically take care of these young patients, St. Jude has given families new holiday traditions to make their home away from home a little merrier. This is thanks in large part to the giving hearts of so many people, including St. Jude employees, volunteers, celebrity supporters, corporate partners, and even former patients.

What always comforts families is that St. Jude doesn’t look like a typical hospital, with its colorful murals, giant aquariums and other kid-friendly features. As I quickly discovered, it’s a welcoming, warm place that transforms into a winter wonderland come Christmas, with giant candy-themed landscapes and twinkling lights adorning trees.

Several activities and crafts bring the spirit of the season to life, whether it’s cookie decorating or making ornaments. Families share together time as well, snuggling up to watch a favorite holiday movie either at patient family housing or in the Imagine Room. Sometimes, Santa even offers screenings of new movies just for patients.

Photo courtesy of St. Jude.

While carolers knocking at the door might happen more in the movies than in real life, at St. Jude, a singing team of doctors, nurses and staff members go from patient room to patient room to spread Christmas cheer. That is one of my favorite memories of being at the hospital.

In fact, visitors come from all over, including performers and corporate partners that support St. Jude the entire year, but make a special trip to campus in December. Target, for instance, holds a winter Bullseye’s Bash event for patients, complete with toys and games. Dollar General invites patients and their siblings Santa’s Workshop to select several toys that were collected by Dollar General team members.

When something as big as cancer enters your life, every moment becomes more precious and the holidays become even sweeter.

One of the most meaningful moments during this time of year is St. Nick’s Toy Drive. The St. Nick in this case happens to be a former St. Jude patient who wanted to find a way to give back to the hospital that saved his life. Each winter, he and his team of elves collect toys to deliver to the hospital in December.

Cuban-American chef Adrianne Calvo prepares a Cuban feast on Christmas Day in St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Photo courtesy of St. Jude.

Year-round, St. Jude patients and employees already enjoy delicious dishes from a variety of food stations at Kay Kafe, the hospital’s cafeteria. St. Jude chefs take great care in preparing meals, oftentimes incorporating fresh ingredients from the St. Jude garden. And when a patient has a special food request, the chefs go out of their way to make it happen, even if it means tracking down Grandma’s mac 'n' cheese recipe.

For the past decade, St. Jude patient families have been treated to a special traditional Cuban meal for the holidays, prepared by Cuban-American chef Adrianne Calvo. Calvo, who is a well-known figure in the culinary world, brings staff from her Miami restaurant along with special ingredients to St. Jude to make a one-of-a-kind meal for patients and their families to savor.

Santa and his elves bring the magic to children undergoing treatment on Christmas. Photo courtesy of St. Jude.

Of course, no holiday would be complete without an appearance from the jolly old elf himself. Many kids worry that if they aren’t at home on the big day, Santa won’t be able to find them.

But Santa makes several special visits to St. Jude over the holidays, which includes bringing the magic to families in the hospital on Christmas Day. With the help of parents who create the wish list, Kris Kringle delivers presents to each and every child who is spending Christmas at St. Jude. Many of the toys are donated by staff, organizations and supporters, taking the burden off of families.

It’s not the trimmings or the tassel or even the presents that make the holiday season so special at St. Jude. The greatest gift is the hope that St. Jude provides during the most difficult of times.

When something as big as cancer enters your life, every moment becomes more precious and the holidays become even sweeter.

Thanks to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, not only did I have the chance to celebrate my first Christmas as a cancer patient, I’ve had nearly 25 years of holidays to cherish as a cancer survivor. This Christmas, I’ll be able to experience another year of magic and joy with my two healthy children and my husband, a fellow St. Jude survivor. There will be no sweeter gift than this.

If you want to know more about how you can support St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, you can learn about volunteering, fundraisers, workplace giving, and donating by visiting the St. Jude website.