The SLO doctor who developed a cure for childhood cancer remembers

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Dr. Donald Pinkel has researched childhood leukemia and developed a cure for the most common form of cancer in children.

Dr. Donald Pinkel has researched childhood leukemia and developed a cure for the most common form of cancer in children.

Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Dear Dr. Donald Pinkel,

Thank you for your life’s work in developing a cure for childhood leukemia.

When you died in March in San Luis Obispo at the age of 95, you left a legacy that impacted the lives of millions of young cancer patients and their families.

Families like mine.

In 1956, my 5 year old brother, Johnny, was diagnosed with acute lymphoid leukemia.

I was 3 years old, my older sister was 8 and our parents were barely 30 years old.

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Dr. Donald Pinkel, who developed a cure for childhood leukemia and was the founding medical director of St. Jude Children’s Hospital, died at his home in San Luis Obispo on March 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

At that time, a diagnosis of leukemia was a death sentence. There was no known cure.

All available treatments were accompanied by severe side effects. I remember my parents describing the courses of steroids given to my brother and the puffiness and turmoil they caused. But few other options existed to fight the disease.

Of course, I had little understanding of what was going on around me. I was still too young to write my name or tie my shoes.

I remember telling my parents that Johnny was “falling asleep” when I heard him screaming in pain. And I spent a lot of time living with my grandparents when things were too stressful at home.

My brother died after two horrific years.

My family managed to survive and was even blessed with my second brother seven weeks after Johnny’s death.

Yet each member of the family has carried a large invisible scar that has impacted every facet of our lives.

I can still see the flowers on the altar of our church, with a simple note in the program: “In honor of John Howard Lewis.” And I watched my mother visit Johnny’s headstone, leaving her still crumpled with tears.

I have spent my life processing these events. But there’s no way they can make sense.

Dr. Pinkel, you understood how families like mine fight cancer. That’s why, when you became the first director and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1962, you dedicated your life to finding a cure for leukemia.

You have developed what is known as “total therapy”, a four-phase treatment plan focusing on induction of remission, consolidation of remission, specific preventive meningeal treatment and continuation of chemotherapy for three years .

In 1967 and 1968, total therapy achieved a 50% cure rate. Today, the American Cancer Society estimates the overall survival rate for leukemia to be 90%.

Your treatment plan is still in use with many modifications.

At your memorial service, I heard a priest tell his story of being one of the first leukemia patients to receive your treatment in 1971. His oncologist had just learned of your new methods and quickly applied them to his patients with excellent results.

I felt an immediate connection to this cancer survivor. We had both faced a similar enemy. One of us had survived it; the other had lost a brother.

Dr. Pinkel, your contributions came too late to save my brother, or to avert the anguish our family has endured.

Yet I think of the millions of people who have been spared our pain and suffering because of your efforts. And I’m really grateful for your life.

Sincerely, Linda Lewis Griffith

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