St. Jude’s Children’s Rsearch Hospital: Interview with Marlo Thomas

Actress, producer and social activist, Marlo Thomas became a feminist icon of 1960s sitcom TV as the star of the hit series “That Girl.” A role model for women and girls, Marlo co-founded the Ms. Foundation for Women and initiated inspiring projects such as the best-selling 1970’s television special, book and record “Free to Be…You and Me.”

Her many accomplishments over the course of her ground-breaking career have included numerous awards, such as a Golden Globe, four Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Award, the Christopher Award, the American Women in Radio and Television Satellite Award and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor for exceptional humanitarian efforts. Ms. Thomas was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame and honored with a star in the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This spring, the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB) honors Marlo Thomas with a Special Impact Award for her work to advance the research and treatment of catastrophic diseases affecting children. Recently, we had a chance to speak with her about her work as National Outreach Director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded by her father, Danny Thomas.

Q. What is the history behind St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital?

A. My father founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. Earlier in his life when times were tough, he reached a turning point as a struggling actor and a father-to-be; mom was actually pregnant with me at that time. He sought guidance in prayer and called upon Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes. My father made a promise, saying that if Saint Jude would show him his way in life, he would erect a shrine in his honor.

As much success came to him, my father stayed true to his promise. He built the hospital to help the most helpless children with catastrophic illnesses. Today, all patients accepted for treatment at St. Jude’s are treated without regard for the family’s ability to pay. Everything beyond what is covered by insurance is taken care of, and for those without insurance, all of the medical costs are absorbed by the hospital. When needed, St. Jude’s also assists families with transportation costs and living expenses while their children undergo treatment.

Q. How has St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital evolved over the years?

A. It has become one of the world’s premier centers for research and treatment of catastrophic diseases in children, primarily pediatric cancers, treating children from all over the world. The hospital has revolutionized therapy for children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, and increased the survival rate from 4%, when St. Jude’s opened, to 80% today.

Today’s basic and clinical research includes work in all pediatric cancers, bone marrow transplantation, brain tumors, sickle cell disease, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, blood diseases, resistance to therapy, viruses, hereditary diseases, influenza and psychological effects of catastrophic illnesses. Thankfully, there is now a sizable population of adults living cancer-free. The hospital stays in touch with its former patients in order to conduct long-term investigations on the history of their health. This work has been of great value in advancing the treatment of both childhood and adult cancers.

Q. What do you think is the secret to the success of St. Jude’s?

A. We are a research center and treatment facility all under one roof. It gives us the opportunity, as our Nobel Laureate Dr. Peter Doherty says “to do more science more quickly,” which results in more cures for these very sick children. St. Jude’s is all about hope, and the supporters of the hospital are truly creating hope every single day. Families that come to St. Jude’s have nowhere else to turn. And a child that is trying to make sense out of a devastating, possibly fatal disease clings to hope because it is all that he or she has. This drives these children’s ability to get through the difficult moments of any given day as well as make wishes and set goals for the future.

The hospital is supported almost entirely by donations. The fundraising arm American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), which my father funded for the purpose of funding the hospital, raises 350 million dollars a year. And we are proud to say that 86 cents on every dollar goes directly to the hospital. Every donor plays his or her part in bringing that special brand of Saint Jude’s hope to those who need it most.

Q. What has your involvement with St. Jude’s meant to you personally?

A. Fulfilling the dream my father had for children is an experience that is difficult to put into words. A lot of parents leave their children all kinds of riches but not many are left with something so enduring in their lives. The doctors, nurses, scientists and researchers at St. Jude’s give a fighting chance to kids that might not otherwise have one. Watching this gifted team work with these incredibly courageous children, seeing them walk out with a great prognosis—it’s like watching a miracle happen!

Marlo’s fundraising activities include hosting the annual St. Jude Hollywood Gala as well as “Time to Live,” an hour-long television special that documents the impact of the hospital’s lifesaving work. All proceeds from her best-selling book, The Right Words at the Right Time, are donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Marlo divides her home life between Connecticut and New York City. She and her husband, Phil Donahue, celebrate 24 years of marriage this May.

For more information about Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital, go to