Decades After Two Cancer Patients Met As Children, Their Lives Were Unexpectedly Intertwined By Fate

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For some people, there are few things more challenging in life than dealing with sickness. Indeed, regardless of the severity, certain illnesses can take a lot out of the stricken individual and their loved ones. However, when it comes to sick children, overcoming such problems can be a far greater challenge.

Image: Facebook/Joel Alsup

Lindsey Wilkerson and Joel Alsup can certainly attest to that, as they both received a devastating diagnosis during their respective childhoods. The former suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, while the latter discovered that he had a form of bone cancer. With that in mind, the youngsters became patients at Tennessee’s St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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Located in Memphis, T.N., St. Jude opened its doors in the early 1960s, becoming an important place for sick children and their families. The hospital specializes in treating childhood cancers, with staff doing all they can to help the stricken youngsters. And Wilkerson and Alsup both experienced that care firsthand.

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During Alsup and Wilkerson’s treatment, they were introduced at a fundraiser for the hospital in 1993. The pair formed a friendship over the next few years, before they went their separate ways to different universities. But in 2004, the former patients reconnected at St. Jude, over a decade on from their first meeting.

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Throughout a person’s life, they might have to deal with a number of illnesses. However, while some people won’t face these problems until they are adults, there are others who have to take them on a lot earlier. As a result, there are plenty of children facing down various medical issues across the world.

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Indeed, as youngsters continued to deal with their respective diagnoses in the early 20th century, a specialist hospital was established in Memphis at the turn of the 1960s. Known as the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, this facility has since helped countless families during their time of need over the last five decades. But the idea behind it came about a few years prior.

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While visiting a church in Detroit, Michigan, future television star Danny Thomas made a significant decision. At that time, he was finding it difficult to make ends meet for his growing family. With that in mind, Thomas then donated the only bit of cash he had to the collection box and started to pray.

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Thomas focused his words toward the patron saint of lost causes, St. Jude Thaddeus, asking for his financial situation to improve. Within a few days, the entertainer’s prayers were answered as he received a big paycheck for a job. Off the back of that, he then made a vow to St. Jude in one of his other prayers.

Image: Facebook/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Indeed, Thomas told St. Jude that if he got his big break in the entertainment industry, the the future star would “build a shrine in his name.” After that, the versatile performer got his wish and fully intended to keep that promise. So in 1957, he made the first steps in setting up a new hospital.

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As an American with Lebanese heritage, Thomas, at that point, established an organization named the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, better known as ALSAC. Using the funds raised by the foundation, he eventually opened the children’s hospital in Memphis in 1962. By naming the facility after St. Jude, the star certainly kept his vow.

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In the decades since then, thousands of children have benefited from the hospital’s services, especially those suffering with cancer. Joel Alsup was one such individual, as he was a patient at St. Jude back in 1987. And much like the other kids at the facility, the youngster and his family were in need of help after a life-changing discovery.

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A resident of Chattanooga, T.N., during that period, Alsup noticed an issue with one of his arms. The right-handed seven-year-old started to find certain activities more difficult than usual, which his dad quickly picked up on. But as the problem persisted, Bob Alsup’s concern for his son only grew.

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“Joel was seven years old and he was having a hard time buckling his seatbelt. I thought he was just messing around,” Bob told The New York Times in September 2018. “We used to play catch with a tennis ball in the den, and I saw he was reaching for the ball with his left hand. I knew something wasn’t right.”

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After meeting with a physician, Alsup’s family were directed to the Memphis facility. Despite being referred the children’s hospital, though, the youngster didn’t show any signs of fear. “None of us had heard of St. Jude and initially I was kind of excited, even though my parents were worried,” he told the hospital’s website.

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Unfortunately for Alsup, his parents had a right to be concerned, as he was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. This caused a tumor to grow in the seven-year-old’s right arm, which explained the problems he’d been experiencing. His treatment then began at the facility.

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Over the next few months, Alsup received chemotherapy at St. Jude, but it didn’t get rid of the tumor. As a result, his doctors began to map out their next move, looking to clear the cancer. Following some discussions, it was decided that amputation of the arm was their best course of action.

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“I was pretty prepared for the news,” Alsup continued on the hospital’s website. “St. Jude had been sending an osteosarcoma patient, who also had his arm amputated, to talk to me while I was going through chemo. My parents came into my room before I went to bed one night and told me [I was losing my arm].”

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Image: Facebook/Joel Alsup

Alsup then added, “I was not that upset. I cried more when they told me I was going to lose my hair. As a kid, I understood [that] I had to go through this [amputation] to get better.” As a result, the youngster underwent an operation to remove his right arm, before finishing up the chemotherapy.

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Following Alsup’s time at the hospital, he and his family made an appearance at a fundraiser for St. Jude in 1993. While there, the young man was introduced to another patient, who was facing down some medical issues of her own. Indeed, Lindsey Wilkerson first arrived at the facility some two years previously.

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A former resident of Crane, Missouri, Wilkerson was just ten years old when she started to feel under the weather at home. Alongside a lack of appetite and frequent tiredness, the youngster also picked up lots of bruises. During that period, her mom was desperate to discover what was wrong, leading to a significant moment.

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After undergoing some tests, Wilkerson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 1991. “It is still a very vivid memory,” she recalled on the hospital website. “I was on the cusp of being a teenager, so I knew the gravity of it. We went home, packed and drove all night, straight to St. Jude, as told by the doctors.”

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Following Wilkerson’s arrival in Memphis, she started chemotherapy, which lasted for more than two years. Her physician looked back at that time, noting just how tough it was. “I remember the terrified family,” Dr. Melissa Hudson told The New York Times. “She had lots of ups and downs in her treatment and she struggled with toxicity. She was a strong little girl.”

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As Wilkerson’s treatment continued, she made an appearance at that St. Jude function held in 1993. And after meeting Alsup at the fundraising event for the hospital, the Missouri native couldn’t help but praise his character and demeanor. According to her, the young man certainly made an impression that day.

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“Both of our families were invited to speak and share our personal St. Jude journeys [at the event],” Wilkerson told The New York Times in September 2018. “I remember being very impressed with Joel; he was really cute and he had a great sense of humor.” However, Alsup’s attitude had a far greater impact on her as time went on.

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“When I met [Alsup], when I was in treatment, I admired him,” Wilkerson told Fox News. “I looked up to him, I thought he was such an incredible person. We grew in our friendship over the years.” Indeed, the pair formed a friendly bond following the fundraiser, as they often met up at hospital events.

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During that time, though, Wilkerson started to develop romantic feelings toward Alsup. “I remember having a huge crush on him [when we were] kids,” she admitted to The New York Times. As for the object of her affections, he said, “She was very pretty. But I was an extremely shy 13-year-old who was afraid to talk to her.”

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Alsup and Wilkerson, however, went their separate ways a few years later, after enrolling at different universities. But despite that, the old friends both harbored ambitions of eventually returning to St. Jude in a working capacity. The Tennessee native was the first to go back, with the hospital recruiting him in early 2003.

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Meanwhile, Wilkerson returned to the facility in 2004, some 12 months after she celebrated her wedding day. Following the newlywed’s arrival at the hospital, her attention was directed toward Alsup, completely unaware that he, also, had returned to the hospital. At that point, their friendship was reignited just over a decade from their first meeting.

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“St. Jude saved both of our lives,” Wilkerson told The New York Times as she explained why they came back. “Joel and I desire to give these patients the love and care that was given to us at their age.” Alsup definitely agreed with that. He added, “Coming back to a place that’s so dear to our hearts has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”

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After meeting up again at St. Jude, Alsup and Wilkerson picked up where they left off, as their friendship blossomed. Along the way, the latter also became a mother for the first time, giving birth to two children, Jacob and Audrey. As a result, the new mom’s mindset while working at the hospital quickly changed.

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“When I became a mom, I began looking at these young patients as if they were my own children,” Wilkerson told The New York Times. “I used to think, ‘I know what they’re going through, I’ve been there.’ But having children of my own shook me like an earthquake. It really changed my perspective.”

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However, Wilkerson and Alsup’s lives took another dramatic turn in 2015. That year, the mom-of-two split up with her husband, ending their 12-year marriage. Around a year later, the two old friends started to look at each other a little differently. Those old romantic feelings, it seems, bubbled back to the surface.

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“We connected on the complexities of our situations and how it changed the way we see the world,” Wilkerson said of her relationship with Alsup to The New York Times. “We have this almost sense of urgency about living life, this gratitude, this desire to give back.” In the fall of 2016, though, everything changed for the pair.

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Indeed, one evening in 2016 at Alsup’s house, the pair sat down to watch Ridley Scott’s classic horror film Alien. As the movie came to a close, the Memphis resident decided to profess his feelings toward his friend. After admitting that he loved her, Wilkerson responded in kind, taking their relationship to a new stage.

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And just over two years from that pivotal moment, Wilkerson and Alsup finally tied the knot in September 2018. Given the deep connection they both share with St. Jude, the wedding itself was held on the hospital’s grounds. With that in mind, the facility’s head chaplain, Brent Powell, presided over the ceremony.

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“During your youth, a cancer diagnosis invaded your life, but you endured and defeated it,” Powell said of the couple during the wedding. “Now you are giving back, paying it forward. You are two of the most loving people I know. It only took you 20 years to confess your love, right after you watched the movie Alien.”

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Meanwhile, as Alsup and Wilkerson enjoyed their big day together, their respective parents reflected on everything that happened. Ginny Cook, the latter’s mom, was particularly pleased that the pair finally confessed their feelings for each other, having also known the groom since his teenage years. In her mind, they were the perfect match.

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Image: Facebook/Joel Alsup

“We’ve known Joel’s family as long as we’ve known him,” Cook told The New York Times. “We were so pleased when they started seeing each other. He’s wonderful to our grandchildren. When we arrived at St. Jude, we were told the bonds we would form with the other families would be the strongest we’d ever know. And it was true.”

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As for Alsup’s dad, he summed up his feelings with an emotional anecdote. Following an incredibly difficult period in the late 1980s, Bob had one wish that he desperately wanted to come to fruition. “I told a friend one day at lunch that I thought I’d maybe see my son graduate from high school,” he the newspaper.

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“A dad’s dreams are wrapped up in his children,” Bob added. “So, now it’s 30 years later, and Joel has Lindsey, Jacob and Audrey, he has a family. My dreams have come true for my son.” Following the emotional ceremony, Wilkerson and Alsup jumped into a white car, ready to start their new lives together, finally.

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