It’s funny how this business of humanity works. Like it or not, you, me---all of us---are cross-connected to everyone else. A single, random event can alter the path of one man’s life and, in turn, affect the destinies of so many others.
That’s why thousands upon thousands of children owe their lives to a rat bite.
It was 1919, and Charles Yakhoob Kairouz and his wife, Margaret, immigrants from Lebanon, lived in a small flat in Toledo, Ohio, in a north-end neighbourhood called Little Syria. It was crowded in that tiny apartment, for Charles and Margaret had ten children. With that many mouths to feed, money was tight. As Maronite Catholics, the family got by mostly on faith.
One day, the youngest of Kairouz children, Daniel, only six months old, was bitten by a rat and took ill. Now remember, these were the days before penicillin or anti-biotics. Even if the rat wasn’t rabid, there was a good chance the infant would die of fever or infection. That’s the way things were then.
Little Danny survived, and his mother kept her word. Every day for a year, she took a streetcar to the end of the line and walked all the way back downtown, knocking at every door along the way. “Please give pennies to the poor,” she’d ask in her thick Middle-Eastern accent. “I promise God.”
Margaret’s perseverance made a deep impression on her son Amos. At eight years old, he was the fifth of the Kairouz’ ten children. Years later, he would state that his memory of his mother’s determination to keep her promise to God was the motivation for his own.
At the time, though, young Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz had other things occupying his thoughts.
To help support his family, Amos took a job selling candy and soda inside the Empire Theatre, at St. Clair and Orange Streets. Vaudeville was in full swing, and from the balcony, the boy had a ringside seat to the comedians, the song-and-dance men, and the other performers. He studied their routines, their timing, their tricks for keeping the audience entertained.
It didn't take long. Like so many youngsters exposed to show business, Amos was hooked.
Fortunately, he had talent. Once his formal education was done, he struck out on his own, using less-ethnic-sounding name of Amos Jacobs. He soon found it tough going. The country had entered into what would become known as the Great Depression and few people had disposable income. Amos managed to find work on the nightclub circuit. It was a catch-as-catch-can livelihood for Amos, whose nightly wage often was just a meal in the back room. Things picked up a bit when, in 1932, he landed a job performing on radio in Detroit.
It didn’t pay much, but it paid regularly. Regularly enough for Amos to take a wife in 1936.
A year later, a baby was on the way. While attending Mass in a local church, Amos was so moved by the service, he put all the money he had---seven dollars---into the collexion plate. Now broke, he prayed for God’s help in paying the looming hospital bills. The next day, he was offered a part on another radio show, one that paid seventy dollars for the performance---ten times what he had given to the church.
Still, his career languished in Detroit for another three years. Uncertain of what to do, Amos visited church, again. Drawing on his Catholic upbringing, Amos turned to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. “Help me find my way in life,” he prayed, “and I will build you a shrine.”
Reluctantly, Amos opted to take up the nightclub circuit, again. He moved his family to Chicago.
Things improved, but not by much. The money was slightly better, but it meant being away from his wife and children for days, even weeks, at a time.
What occurred next probably reminded Amos of what had happened back in Detroit after he given his last seven bucks to the church. A nightclub offered him a healthy booking for a decent salary. He was able to save up enough money for the Jacobs family to relocate to California. Amos knew this was where the real money in show business was.
He landed stints on network radio. He played recurring rôles on The Bickersons and The Baby Snooks Show, as well as performing as himself on the popular variety programme, The Big Show. This got Amos noticed by the right people.
Amos appeared in a handful of films, and this was followed by the thing which made his face recognisable in every household in America---an eleven-year run as the star of his own television show.
After twenty years of struggling, Amos was now an “overnight” success. But he didn’t forget his promise to St. Jude Thaddeus.
Amos decided that the best shrine to the patron saint of hopeless causes would be a hospital dedicated to that most hopeless of diseases---cancer. More than that, it would be a children’s hospital, as children were cancer’s most unfair victims. At the suggestion of a friend and spiritual advisor, Amos chose Memphis, Tennessee, as the proposed location.
Amos started raising money for his cause in the mid-1950’s. He and his wife criss-crossed the United States by automobile, making impassioned pleas and rousing support. During one summer, they hit twenty-eight cities in thirty-two days.
Meanwhile, a group of Memphis businessmen, persuaded by Amos’ fervency, joined his cause and began its own fundraising efforts, providing the capital for charity shows featuring the major entertainment stars of the day.
It wasn’t enough to just raise enough money to build the hospital; there was also the formidable task of financing its daily operations. You see, Amos insisted that the medical treatment provided by the hospital be available to all stricken children, even those from families too poor to afford it.
To that end, Amos turned to fellow Americans of his own Middle-Eastern descent. He told them that supporting his hospital would honour their immigrant forefathers who had come to America. Amos also pointed out that it was a way for them, as a group, to thank America for the freedoms they had enjoyed here.
In 1962, Amos kept his vow when the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors. It is the world’s foremost facility for the study and treatment of catastrophic diseases in children. It treats over 7,800 patients each year. Due to its advanced techniques in radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, the survival rate for acute lymphobastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, has risen from 4% to 80%. St Jude was the first institution to develop a cure for sickle cell disease, by means of bone marrow transplants.
And no family has ever had to pay for the care its child receives.
By now, most of you have already guessed the thing I’ve been deliberately omitting from this story.
In 1940, when Amos and his family moved to Chicago, he didn’t want his family to know he had returned to the nightclub circuit, so he stopped billing himself as “Amos Jacobs”. Taking the first names of two of his brothers, he adopted the professional name of . . . .
I expected you’d figure that out on your own. It’s O.K., though, because that’s not “The Rest of the Story” part of my tale.
To get to that, you need to know one other important thing about St. Jude. It’s not just a hospital, but it is a research centre. Its many discoveries and breakthroughs in the treatment of the ill---cancer protocols, organ transplant procedures, vaccines, human gene therapy, and countless other developments---have been shared with medical institutions across the country and around the world.
St. Jude’s refinement of imagining technologies, such as magnetic resonance and computerised tomography, provide the tools for patients everywhere to have their cancers more readily identified and located. This enables physicians to more accurately determine the best treatments and apply them. In the case of radiation therapy, physicians are now able to pinpoint the cancerous tissues, with significantly less harmful side-effects than the old “slash and burn” techniques of the past.
Countless cancer patients all over the world owe their survival and their improved quality of life during treatment at least in part to the products of St Jude’s research.
Now, like many others of comfortable means, Cheryl---the Good Mrs. Benson---and I pass on some of what we have to others, donate to those in need. For years, I have given to St. Jude. Oddly enough, it’s not because I was swayed by the advertisements depicting the children afflicted by cancer “in the dawn of life”---though helping them is as worthwhile as it comes.
No, I started donating to St. Jude because of Danny Thomas. He kept the vow he had made to St. Jude Thaddeus. And Thomas didn’t do it by simply throwing money at a problem. He worked harder to establish a children’s hospital than he ever did as an entertainer. He did everything to build St. Jude short of laying the cement for the foundation, and at great personal cost in time and income.
Thousands of children and adults are alive to-day because he kept a promise. And I had profound respect for him because of that and that’s why I write the cheques to St. Jude.
As it turns out, I now have another reason to appreciate Danny Thomas. A much bigger one.
Thanks to his devotion to establishing St. Jude and all of the medical advances in the treatment of cancer that have come about as a result, in a way, Danny Thomas helped save my wife’s life.
You see, Cheryl has cancer.
Specifically, it’s squamous cell cancer, which in her case developed when malignant cells detached from a cancerous tumour and collected against the lymph node on the right side of her throat. As with most cancers early on, there were no noticeable symptoms. No pain or discomfort. Not even a sense of pressure under her skin. She just happened to discover it, three months ago, while taking a shower.
Thankfully, we’ve had the services of some top-notch physicians. The doctor who immediately recognised the lump for what it was during his clinical examination. The specialists who accurately gauged that the source tumour was located in one of her tonsils. The surgeon who performed the tonsillectomy.
In retrospect, things moved pretty fast. But at the time, each day weighed heavily on us as yet another day the cancer was growing.
Removing the cancerous tonsil was only Step One. The malignant lump in the side of Cheryl’s throat still had to be dealt with. That meant a campaign of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Cheryl’s had six weeks of chemo and radiation so far. You have no idea of how terrible a cure it is. Sure, everybody knows about the hair loss and the nausea and the fatigue. But there are a dozen other unpleasant side-effects that nobody realises---unless he’s gone through it himself, or someone he loves has.
But here’s the thing. As miserable as it is for Cheryl, it would have been worse twice times ten if it weren’t for the advanced medical techniques and equipment of to-day. Techniques and equipment developed from the research performed at St. Jude and other institutions like it. Things like the linear accelerator.
The purpose of the radiation is to kill the cancerous tissue. Unfortunately, the radiation doesn’t discriminate; it also kills healthy tissue, as well. Thirty years ago, the standard protocol would have been to bombard Cheryl’s entire face and neck with radiation. Healthy tissue would be sacrificed in order to destroy the cancer.
But a linear accelerator provides a three-dimensional image of the cancerous mass. Computers “read” this image. A beam of radiation is projected into the patient and the computers adjust the direction and intensity of the beam so that it strikes only the affected tissue, minimising the damage to the surrounding healthy cells.
So, you’re probably asking, why is this the subject of my Christmas log entry? What has this got to do with Christmas?
Well, not very much, I'll grant you. Just this.
When the Good Mrs. Benson found that lump in her throat three months ago, it was the size of a golf ball. Now when she presses down on the same spot, there’s nothing there. The treatments are working remarkably, which has the doctors delighted.
They aren’t the only ones.
This should be Cheryl’s last week of treatment. After that, three weeks of recuperation, and then a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to ensure that the cancer has been eliminated. The first PET scan had shown no trace of cancer anywhere else in her body. So the lump in her throat should be the last of it.
We won’t know for sure until January, and then there's the five-year monitoring period. But right now, it appears that my wonderful wife has gone from being a cancer patient to being a cancer survivor.
That’s the best Christmas gift ever.
To-day is our twenty-first Christmas together. Three months ago, there was a real possibility that it would have been our last. Now, we have every reason to expect another twenty-one Christmases together, her and I, and each of them, we’ll treasure all the more. Each one of them will be a gift, too.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!