Dr. Steven Moore and 17 students — including three cancer warriors — discover firsthand there’s no place like St. Jude to refresh
An appreciation for life
By Heather Williams, photography by Steven Moore
College students often find themselves perched on an uncomfortable desk chair in a classroom, dreaming of life beyond the walls of campus. But last spring, students in Dr. Steven Moore’s immunology class found themselves strolling down the corridors of one of the most prestigious cancer facilities in the world.
Moore worked in the Department of Immunology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., as a post-doctoral research fellow for more than three years before coming to the biology department at the University in 1993. He has been escorting classes to tour the facility ever since.
Learning opportunities abound within the walls of St. Jude, where there is a working budget of more than $1 million per day, and the goal of every laboratory research project has direct clinical relevance. Students are able to witness research techniques learned in the classroom, such as flow cytometry, a tool commonly used to identify immune cells and monitor their activities. This year, for the first time, they were also able to tour the clinical areas of the hospital.
“St. Jude does not see the research aspect of their work as secondary to the clinical work but sees both research and clinical work as equally important,” says Moore. “Students visiting St. Jude get to see this firsthand and come back to Harding with a much better appreciation of how biomedical science truly works and how the techniques and concepts they learn in class are in fact extremely relevant to today’s medical problems.”
Although the trip is not required, he says that most students see it as the highlight of the semester. Seventeen students made the journey with him on April 17 to Memphis, but this year’s group had three unique participants. These three students had already experienced the clinical side of a research hospital firsthand — they are childhood cancer survivors.
Brittany Mills: Compassion paid forward
Brittany Mills of Clemmons, N.C., is a senior biology major with minors in psychology and health care missions. After taking Moore’s microbiology class, she was eager to learn more and decided to enroll in his immunology course. Mills recalls the excitement of being able to visit St. Jude.
“I was amazed that this facility bears the entire cost of treatment for its patients and really does everything possible to make the families comfortable. To me, that is an amazing display of goodness and compassion. Being able to see that, both as someone wanting to enter the medical field and as someone who has been through the treatments, also was truly inspiring.”
Mills was diagnosed with Alveolar Soft Part Sarcoma at age 3. The disease usually occurs through contained tumors, and the cause is unknown. Although her tumors have never metastasized (spread), she did experience recurrences at ages 6 and 17. She also spent this past summer dealing with another small recurrence.
After the first mass was removed, Mills underwent a year of chemotherapy at Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, N.C. However, new developments at the time showed this type of cancer to be unresponsive to chemotherapy and radiation, and subsequent masses had to be surgically removed. Mills sees the reality of not having to deal with the side effects of chemo and radiation as a blessing.
“This is good news for me,” says Mills. “Not having chemo means I get to avoid the ‘sick’ part of cancer and leaves surgery as my main mode of getting rid of it.”
The support of her family, friends and church have been an encouragement to her throughout this journey, often relieving the nervousness that accompanies such an experience. The impact of being a cancer survivor has left a lasting impression on her life and faith.
“As with any hardship, it makes you surrender both the problem and the solution to God because there is absolutely nothing you can do to make yourself get better. Essentially, this is how I have developed my faith.”
As for the future, Mills says she no longer sees cancer as a death sentence but merely an inconvenient stone hurled into the pathway of life. Upon graduation in May, she hopes to enroll in the Physician Assistant Program at the University.
“I look at the way people treated me with such care and compassion when I needed it, and it makes me want to give that same care to other people in every way I can.”
Carlton Thiede: A fighter from day one
Although he says he was more than likely born with Neuroblastoma, Charlton Thiede was diagnosed at 6 months. But, the senior biology major from Highland Village, Texas, has now been cancer-free for more than 20 years. He enrolled in Moore’s immunology class to enhance his major and, like his classmates, was excited to visit St. Jude.
“It was very inspiring to go there and see the work that was being done,” says Thiede. “St. Jude and its doctors are on the cutting edge of new cancer treatment and medical technology.”
Thiede received treatment at Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and Children’s Medical Center, both in Dallas. Each center provides similar care and treatment, and, like St. Jude, patients are not turned away for their inability to pay.
After the diagnosis, Thiede underwent numerous surgeries as well as nine months of chemotherapy to eliminate the cancer from his spinal canal and chest cavity. He developed severe scoliosis as he grew up, an effect of his treatment.
Walking the halls of St. Jude, Thiede was drawn in by the advances of technology as well as the history he shares with patients.
“Being a former Neuroblastoma patient made me really appreciate what is being done to help kids with that particular type of cancer as well as many others.”
For Thiede, the most valuable aspect of the trip to St. Jude was to see the hope the center provides to young patients through committed doctors and adequate funding. Being a childhood cancer survivor has impacted his life tremendously. Like Mills, he sees it as his chance to make something of himself and give back. He plans to someday pursue a career as a physician’s assistant and possibly become a college professor later in life.
“In my mind, curing cancer is a modern day miracle. I want to give something back to humanity because a lot has been given to me in order to have the chance to just be alive. It’s more or less a gift that I can’t just throw away. I am truly blessed.”
Luke Smelser: Big disease, small world
For Luke Smelser of Florence, Ala., the road to St. Jude was not an unfamiliar one. Just before he turned 4, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, and since then, St. Jude has maintained a constant presence in his life.
“My introduction with cancer was rushed and frightening,” says Smelser. “It was quite a transformation to go from a normal little kid running around outside to being confined to a sterile isolation room in St. Jude.”
Although difficult, Smelser said his experience at the center was one that left him feeling extremely blessed. He was treated by internationally renowned childhood leukemia expert Dr. Ching-Hon Pui, who is now chair of the oncology department at the center.
He underwent more than two years of chemotherapy before the cancer went into remission. Afterward, he and his family made regular visits to the hospital for checkups until he was pronounced cancer free around age 10. He continued to go back for annual checkups and, as a college student, spent the summer before his senior year there working as a research intern.
Smelser, who graduated in May with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, was a lab assistant for Moore’s microbiology course during his last year at the University. When he heard the immunology class was making its annual pilgrimage to St. Jude, he couldn’t resist an opportunity to tag along and return to the place that so greatly impacted his life.
“I always love going back to the institution that I owe my life to. It was great to go with a group of people that had never been there and see their reactions to such an overwhelming place.”
Perhaps the most special aspect of the trip is the connection shared between Smelser and Moore. The two discovered during a microbiology class that Smelser was actually a patient at St. Jude during the time Moore was working in the center’s immunology department.
“It was interesting that our lives were overlapping once again. I felt so blessed that someone who had potentially aided in my diagnosis and treatment was now shaping my mind and education. It is a really special connection to have.”
Going back to the place from which some of his earliest memories come gave him a fresh perspective on the aspects of the hospital that had become so commonplace to him through the years. Although the journey was difficult and often painful, he recalls the joy of being pronounced cured and thanks God for the experience.
“It gave me an appreciation for life that I do not believe I would possess otherwise. It instilled in me an interest for the practice of medicine by providing me with an insider’s look at medicine early in life. Most of all, it convinced me that God has a purpose for my life, and he is indeed in control.”
Smelser started medical school at University of Birmingham this fall.
A life-changing experience
Visiting St. Jude is quite possibly a life-changing experience for all who enter its doors. It touched the lives of these three students, who have lived through cancer, as well as their 14 classmates. It has forever changed the professor who continues to seek opportunities to enrich the educational experience for his students.
Moore recalls meeting a little boy while working at St. Jude. The child ran up to him in the hallway and asked how he was doing before running off as quickly as he’d appeared.
“I stood there for a moment, thinking, ‘How am I? How am I? Little boy, you are the one with no hair. You are the one with cancer! How am I?’ It truly changed my outlook on the whole day. I said a quick prayer, thanking God for my life and health! I’ve wondered since meeting Luke, ‘What is the chance that was Luke Smelser?’ I’ll never know.”