Someone once told Danny Thomas that to convince the poor to believe in hope and God, he must go to them with a Bible in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. “My loaf of bread is the hospital,” the comedian says.
He means, of course, the renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, for which he has raised a staggering $21 million.-For the past six years Thomas’ obsession has been matched by that of Dr. Alvin Mauer, the hospital’s medical director, with spectacularly encouraging results.
A specialist in blood diseases (and the first doctor to be president-elect of both the American Society of Hematology and the Association of American Cancer Institutes), Mauer has guided the development of a remarkable campaign at St. Jude that has raised the survival rate for lymphocytic leukemia from near zero to 44 percent. Children who have not suffered a recurrence of the cancer five years after all radiation and chemotherapy treatment has stopped are considered cured. “We’re more than pleased,” Thomas exults. “We’re flabbergasted. Our progress is being disseminated all over the earth.”
He and the doctor are a peculiar collaboration of showbiz and Middle America. A 51-year-old lowan, son of a dentist, Mauer was director of hematology at Cincinnati Children’s Research Hospital when he was tapped by the St. Jude board. The institution has since doubled in size, increased its collaboration with hospitals throughout North America and Europe and opened auxiliary facilities in Peoria, Ill., Youngstown, Ohio and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Besides his administrative chores, Mauer is the author of 132 articles and a book on pediatric hematology and still makes patient rounds three times a week. “He is,” says Thomas, “not only a great scientist but a beautiful human being. The entire hospital staff is a reflection of Dr. Mauer’s genius.” Mauer repays the compliment in terms of the “medical miracles” he and his staff are said to achieve. “The evolution of one man’s idea into what this hospital has become is the real miracle,” he says.
How St. Jude began is familiar show business legend. Thomas, a devout Catholic (as is Mauer), was struggling along as a $7-a-night vaudeville comic in Detroit in the early 1930s. Desperate for a break, he vowed to build a monument to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes, in exchange for helping him, as Thomas recalls it, “find my way in life, my direction.” (He bristles at the suggestion that he was simply bargaining for success.) By the mid-’50s he had donated $250,000 of his own money to set up a research program and building fund at the University of Tennessee (recommended by his friend Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago). The hospital opened in 1962.
The work on lymphocytic leukemia and other forms of cancer is, of course, expensive, more so because St. Jude charges no fees. As usual, Thomas will enlist a regiment of entertainment luminaries to raise money toward this year’s $18 million budget, 70 percent of which comes from contributions, 30 percent from federal grants. Frank Sinatra, for whom St. Jude’s sixth floor is named, Sammy Davis, Bob Hope, Wayne Newton, Paul Anka and Perry Como are among past supporters, as is ex-President Gerald Ford, who will appear in his third Danny Thomas Memphis Pro-Am Golf Tournament in June.
Though it has only 48 beds, St. Jude regularly treats some 1,300 children, 90 percent as outpatients. Some areas in the hospital are hermetically sealed with glass walls, and the air inside is replaced every six minutes. “We must protect the children against the high risk of infection,” Mauer explains. “When you have a child who has his leukemia under control and then gets an infection and dies, it really tears your heart out.”
Through the years Thomas has observed Mauer and the other doctors and developed a kind of bedside manner himself. He came across a little boy recently who was crying in fear as blood was taken from his arm. Thomas asked the nurse to give him a blood test, too, and promptly burst into tears. “See, I cry too,” he said. The little boy smiled.