By Robin Gallaher Branch
Pictures of Gabby Salinas by Cory Dugan of Christian Brothers University; all other photos courtesy of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
A childhood cancer survivor inspired by the professionals at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital pursues her dreams of a health care career.
Gabby Salinas, now 31 and a three-time cancer survivor, praises St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She knows it well, both as a patient for 16 years and a research assistant for eight.
“First, St. Jude gave me a chance to live. I would not be alive today without St. Jude,” she begins. “Second, I grew up with scientists and they mentored me.”
September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which was officially designated in 2012 to bring awareness to childhood cancer – the leading cause of death by disease for children under the age of 15. Between 180,000 and 240,000 children are diagnosed each year with cancer.
Survivors like Salinas and their families celebrate with joy and much thanksgiving. St. Jude treats children regardless of race, color, creed, or a family’s ability to pay. Its motto, “Finding Cures. Saving Children,” summarizes its mission.
“St. Jude treats children diagnosed with a catastrophic disease of childhood, including cancer, HIV, and sickle cell disease,” summarizes Dr. Daniel Mulrooney, a specialist in the late effects of childhood cancer.
Salinas and her family came to St. Jude from Bolivia. Young Gabby, then seven, was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer; radiation and chemo therapy proved successful. However, cancer returned twice, at ages 15 and 19, as thyroid cancer.
How is her health now? “I am doing well,” Salinas answers. “I have no evidence of disease.”
St. Jude began as the dream, vision, and prayer of Danny Thomas, the beloved American actor and comedian. Some 9,000 attended its opening on Feb. 4, 1962, near downtown Memphis. Its scope grew nationally and worldwide – but always stayed personal.
For more than 50-plus years, St. Jude’s groundbreaking research has helped push the survival rate for childhood cancer from 20 percent to more than 80 percent.
Although childhood cancer is rare, its warning signs (including fever, bleeding, and swollen lymph nodes) parallel those of common childhood illnesses. “The difference is that the symptoms persist,” Mulrooney explains.
Salinas remembers that as a child she pestered her medical caregivers. She asked questions as blood was drawn, tests were administered, and her body fought to live. She was curious. Doctors, nurses, and researchers explained their work. Their replies fascinated her and changed her life. Everybody encouraged her.
Years later when a chance came to work in a St. Jude lab as a bio-chemistry undergrad from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, she took it. Professionally it has been “a dream come true to work alongside people who are leaders in their field,” she says.
Salinas describes St. Jude “the crown jewel of our country. It’s such a point of pride! It’s wonderful to have it in the South and in Memphis.”
She is now working toward her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science at the University of Kentucky. Salinas ran for the Tennessee State Senate in 2018 from District 31 but lost by 1,418 votes, only 1.7 percent. Her platform was the need for affordable health care. “I certainly know about that,” she says with a smile.
ST. JUDE’S WALK/RUN & THE MEMPHIS MARATHON
The fifth annual St. Jude Walk/Run, a nationwide fundraiser, is scheduled for Sept. 28 in more than 60 communities nationwide. There is still time to register for the event, which hopes to raise $960,000 this year.
The single-largest, one-day fundraising event, however, is the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend. Scheduled for Dec. 7, in Memphis the goal is to raise $12.5 million for the children of St. Jude. General registration is open now for the marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K, and kids marathon.
Fundraising events, donations, and grants are crucial to St. Jude because families never receive a bill from the hospital for treatment, travel, housing, or food. The philosophy is that the only thing a family should worry about is helping their child survive.