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NYBC reps visit St. Jude Children's Hospital

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- No matter how many times you visit, it always hits home. There's nothing in this country quite like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and perhaps not anywhere in the world.

A delegation from the National Youth Baseball Championships visited St. Jude Thursday for the purpose of visiting the children and spreading cheer throughout the hospital, and a funny thing happened: The patients returned the joy and inspiration in an indescribable fashion.

Perhaps it's the resolute way they approach their condition and their treatment, or maybe it's just because these are kids persevering through difficult amounts of adversity. But really, the atmosphere comes back to one thing: the amazing mission that St. Jude has set for itself.

St. Jude is both a hospital and a research facility, and it provides world-class treatment for each of its patients without expecting any payment in return. These kids -- and the families they come from -- understand that despite their condition, they've been given an amazing gift.

Jeff Nelson and C.J. Nitkowski, both former Major League players, took time to meet and greet many of the patients on Thursday, stopping to pose for pictures and to sign autographs. Nelson had been to St. Jude several times as part of NYBC coverage, but he said it always makes an impact.

"For what these parents and kids go through, it's amazing that they're so upbeat," said Nelson. "It's amazing what St. Jude does for these families. Some of these kids have been here for more than a year. If you're a parent and you have kids, it makes you really thankful for their health."

St. Jude, founded by entertainer Danny Thomas in 1962, is housed on a sprawling complex that doesn't even seem like a hospital. The facility's hallway walls are adorned with bright colors and with artwork done by the patients, and the kids get around in wagons instead of gurneys.

But the most striking thing about St. Jude is the way it treats its patients. St. Jude was the first institution established with the purpose of conducting clinical research into catastrophic childhood diseases, and fund-raising makes sure that the families of the patients won't ever have to pay for anything.

That means no transportation fees, no payment for lodging, and most importantly, no charge for the treatment of the condition that brought them to St. Jude. Seventy-five percent of St. Jude's operating cost is covered by fund-raising, and the rest comes from insurance and federal grants.

It takes $1.8 million in funds to run the hospital on a daily basis, and St. Jude treats close to 9,000 patients a year. These are kids from all over the country with one thing in common: They've been diagnosed with a rare condition and they've been referred to St. Jude as their best option.

Perhaps their local hospital doesn't accept their insurance, or maybe they just can't get the treatment they need where they live. That's where St. Jude comes in. The hospital does its best to alleviate the strain on families and to treat its patients as if they were children first and clients second.

In one section of the hospital, there's an alphabetic rundown of things from the children's perspective. Each letter of the alphabet represents a word, and the children are encouraged to write what it means to them. Each of them are personal, and it's hard to read them without getting emotional.

"It's really intense," said Nelson of the artwork on the walls. "You see the alphabet on the wall and I can't even get through half of it. And it's because of their stories, not because of the letters."

St. Jude has high-profile actors and athletes -- names such as Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams and Michael Strahan among them -- representing the facility as part of its Thanks and Giving campaign, but most of its support comes in the way of donations that are less than $50.

One high-profile corporate partner -- Chili's, a national restaurant chain -- has pledged $50 million in donations to St. Jude, and a wing of the hospital is named the Chili's Care Center.

The mission is working. When St. Jude opened in 1962, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- the most common form of childhood cancer -- was just four percent. Nearly fifty years later, the survival rate is 94 percent, and St. Jude's staff is working on the next condition.

The St. Jude faculty, in fact, includes a Nobel Prize-winner (Peter C. Doherty) and five members of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Research and treatment both occur under the same roof at St. Jude, which is a rare phenomenon indeed for an American hospital.

Nitkowski, who last pitched in the Majors in 2005, found himself touched by the moment on Thursday. Nitkowski was seated for a while, signing autographs, when he connected with a little girl on line. At first, the girl was hesitant, but then Nitkowski picked her up and she didn't want to let go.

"She was 2 years old, but she's only been sick for two months. She's had four surgeries," said Nitkowski of the new friend he'd made. "The first time around, she wouldn't come through the line. She didn't want to look at anybody. But then after a while, she didn't want to go back to her mom."

Nitkowski held her for 20 minutes, posing for pictures and making small talk, laughing at how closely they'd bonded in so short a period of time. Will the girl remember this meeting for a week, for a month or for a year? Nobody can say for sure, but Nitkowski knows this: It will affect him forever.

"I will [remember]," he said, underlining the significance of the visit. "I know that."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for