By Emily Williams
Though the hospital is in Memphis, Tennessee, St. Jude Hospital’s reach can be felt in Alabama through the patients and families who have been treated there and the discoveries they share with the world of pediatric cancer research.
To give back to the hospital that gave their children a new lease on life, mothers in the Birmingham area and community supporters band together to help plan the annual St. Jude Field of Dreams event. This year’s gala will be May 12 at the Grand Bohemian Hotel and, as it does every year, will showcase personal success stories through the patient honorees who attend.
One of the founders of the event, Molly Fielding of Mountain Brook, is the parent of one of the honorees, 13-year-old Evie, who is a survivor of retinoblastoma.
During the past four years, the event has honored three other Over the Mountain patients. This year, organizers have extended the reach to Jacksonville by honoring Thompson Wagoner and his family.
“It takes some work to find other St. Jude families because there’s no … list of Alabama patients or anything like that, so we have to kind of find each other,” Fielding said.
They found each other this year because Thompson’s mother, Missy Wagoner, was looking for a way to give back to the hospital that has treated her son for the past 41⁄2 years.
“We didn’t even know that there was anything local for St. Jude until we found this,” Wagoner said.
“When you meet another mother like us, there is that instant connection,” she said. “And people recognize that when they come to this event. It is in the heart of each committee member and you can see that in them.”
Thompson is a confident 5-year-old, not shy at all and quick to tell a joke, and nothing in his behavior indicates he is a cancer patient.
“If you look at him, you’d never really know,” Wagoner said. “His left eye is a prosthetic, but you can’t really even tell at first glance. I don’t think he’s even told his friends about it yet.”
About 41⁄2 years ago, Wagoner and her husband, Duff, began to notice something in their 6-month-old son’s eyes. She said there had been a whitish reflection in photos they had taken of their infant son, and the issue was beginning to seem worse.
After taking him in to see an optometrist, the couple was quickly referred to St. Jude.
The hospital diagnosed Thompson with bilateral retinoblastoma, a cancer that affected both of his eyes. With his left eye beyond repair, it was removed, and the work began to save the other eye. Years of chemotherapy and repeated examinations followed.
“From the age of 6 months to 3 years, we were at the hospital almost every month, and we lived there for almost a year,” Wagoner said. “It was one of the hardest times in my life, and for everyone it was a complete roller- coaster. But we never thought, ‘Oh great, we have to go to St. Jude.’”
Freshly downgraded to checkups at the hospital every three months, Thompson is always excited to take a trip up to the hospital, Wagoner said.
“He has had a really great childhood there,” she said. “There were plenty of chances to play and have fun at the hospital and at the Ronald McDonald House. As a family, it felt great to be there, too. They care about the wellbeing of not just the patient, but the family as well.”
The hospital feels like a second home, Wagoner said. She said she grew close to many people there, having family dinners with nurses and making friends from all over the country.
“I remember meeting other mothers and hearing these long complicated diagnoses for their kids and I know that I could have been them,” she said. “We were incredibly lucky that Thompson’s cancer – not that any cancer is best – but it’s one of the most treatable ones.”
Dinner and Dancing
Field of Dreams will feature live and silent auctions and a sit-down dinner, followed by musical entertainment from The Undergrounders and dancing.
Funds from the event will benefit the hospital and its research, which Fielding noted is shared with other hospitals all over the country.
“Not every hospital has the ability to treat certain pediatric cancers,” Fielding said. “Evie has started a life study at St. Jude, and they’ll follow her throughout her entire life, and that information will be shared with hospitals like Children’s of Alabama,” Fielding said.
For more information, visit stjude.org/fieldofdreams.