In January, Turner Simkins celebrated his son Brennan’s 19th birthday. He knows that was only possible because of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
“According to every other pediatric hospital in the country, Brennan really was in an impossible situation,” says Turner. “They weren’t even willing to look at him.”
Brennan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2009, just days after his 7th birthday. His first round of chemotherapy seemed to go well, but he relapsed shortly after, and he underwent his first bone marrow transplant. It didn’t take.
Generally, a person cannot receive two bone marrow transplants in a year, but the young patient needed one in order to live. His parents found one of the only pediatric hospitals in the country that was willing to try and made plans to go to Philadelphia for treatment. Then, just five days before they were set to fly to Pennsylvania, a friend put Turner and his wife, Tara, in touch with the then-CEO of St. Jude, who called them from a conference in Hawaii to talk options. They decided to fly to Memphis from their Augusta, Georgia, home right then and there.
“We showed up on Halloween. There was a lot of hoopla,” says Turner. “As we learned later, St. Jude takes great advantage its holidays.”
But it was about more than the festive atmosphere. “We just felt better there,” he says of the hospital, which treats all of its patients for free. “They had more cards in the deck.”
They changed course and moved Brennan to Memphis for treatment. By Christmas, the whole family, Brennan’s two brothers included, called the Target House (free, apartment-style housing for long-term patient families) home.
“By then, we’d been in the fight long enough to know that we needed to be around, odd as it sounds, other people who were in similar baskets,” notes Turner. “Just being able to sit in the library or one of the rec rooms at Target House and chat openly with somebody who understands the emotional stuff you’re going through, who understands the technical, clinical stuff.”
Brennan’s second bone marrow transplant failed, and then a third, and the family prepared to say goodbye.
“It was a tough day,” remembers Turner. “But it seemed like everybody from St. Jude—be it a housekeeper or nurse, someone from triage or doctors—came in to see him. To think of all the kids at St. Jude, to think that all these people were emotionally affected enough by what could have happened to Brennan that day that they showed up to tell him and us they loved him? It’s what triggered my book [published in 2016] and the song [recorded in 2015]. There’s always a possibility, and we were able to focus on what was possible because of that energy.”
Brennan pulled through, and after a rare fourth bone marrow transplant in 2011, the Simkins family finally got some good news. “The doctor looked me dead in the eye, gave me a high five, and said, ‘We did it.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that was pretty strong.’ Brennan’s been in remission ever since.”
And while he hasn’t been a full-time patient since 2011, Brennan still goes back to St. Jude every year for a follow-up. “We feel like Memphis and St. Jude are our second home,” says Turner. “When it’s time for his appointment, Tara and I fight over who’s going to go. Some of our best friends to this day are patient families we met there. It’s a very strange bond—probably comparable to the bond people who go through war together have for one another. It’s brutally special. And it’s something that just doesn’t leave you.”
It’s these lasting relationships, both with the hospital and other patient families, that have inspired Turner to help raise more than $2 million for targeted research at St. Jude through the Press On fund. He’s also raised money for the hospital through downloads of “Possibilities,” the song he wrote to celebrate his son’s miraculous fight that was recorded by country music star and St. Jude supporter Darius Rucker in 2015.
Listen to Southern Living’s “Biscuits & Jam” podcast to hear Darius Rucker’s interview.
“I’m not going through life saying, ‘Golly, I owe St. Jude my kid’s life. I do, obviously, in a way, but I don’t feel indebted, like I need to do this,” says Turner of his fundraising efforts. “But I feel, like I would for any other member of my family, that it’s something I want to do.”
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