April 15, 1996 12:00 PM

GABRIELA SALINAS KNOWS NOTHING of the power of the press. Nor, until recently, had the 7-year-old Bolivian with bone cancer ever heard of an American actress named Mario Thomas. But last week, she had both to thank as she sat in a wheelchair at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, clutching her Barbie doll and waiting to begin a costly medical treatment that doctors believe will save her life.

Gabriela’s deliverance began on March 25 when Thomas opened the New York Daily News to read a story about a South American child stricken with Ewing’s sarcoma—the second most common form of childhood bone cancer—who had come to New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center seeking treatment. Hospital administrators told her father, Omar, 35, a Bolivian Air Force captain, that because he had neither medical insurance nor the estimated $250,000 cost of care, the hospital could not treat Gabriela.

“I was frightened for her,” says Thomas, who promptly faxed the story to St. Jude. Founded by her father, the late comedian Danny Thomas, in 1957, St. Jude specializes in childhood cancers and takes on most cases pro bono. Two days later, Omar and his daughter flew to Memphis, courtesy of St. Jude. “My father founded St. Jude so no child should be turned away,” Thomas says.

Gabriela—who has a new doll she calls Mario—will undergo a 30-week regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. “Ewing’s tumors respond to this,” says St. Jude’s oncologist Dr. William Meyer. His patient put it more succinctly when she called her mother, Jackeline, in Bolivia. “When I come home,” Gabriela said, “I’ll be fine.”

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