A Legacy of Hope for Young Leukemia Patients

Angelica Welch
Published: Monday, Sep 03, 2018
Joseph V. Simone, MD
Joseph V. Simone, MD
In the 1960s, programs for treating leukemia were few and far between—especially for children. The disease was just beginning to be understood, and rules and regulations for taking care of both adult and pediatric patients were underdeveloped and inefficient, as the first treatment for systemic cancers had been developed only a decade earlier.

A key player who emerged during those early years of pediatric cancer care was Joseph V. Simone, MD. Most notably, he chaired the Department of Hematology and served as associate director for clinical research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital before becoming the director and CEO of the hospital from 1983 to 1992.

The Chicago native began his career in medicine as a resident at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital. Initially studying internal medicine, Simone soon discovered his interest in hematologic diseases. That led him to the Pediatric Department at the University of Illinois, which had a big commitment to blood disorders and was conveniently located down the block.

After years of training in hematology and oncology, Simone left Chicago to take a job at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee—a position suggested by a friend who had passed on the opportunity.

Until this point, almost all children with leukemia died of their disease. But by cultivating a communication model to better reach the patients, Simone began to see the difference in treating children versus treating adults.

The level of complexity of the treatment changes when speaking with a child rather than to an adult, so “we use words and concepts that the kids will understand. It’s tricky, though, because you can scare them, the parents are scared—and sometimes I am scared. But I think [having] that group—parents, doctor, our superb nurses, and the patients involved—is something [for which] we do not provide enough training for people,” Simone admits.

St. Jude’s prominence grew with Simone’s reputation. After one year, he had reorganized the clinic and laid the foundation for the reputation of efficient, personalized, patient-based care that St. Jude is revered for today.

Patients are what drove Simone to make St. Jude a home away from home. Situated on the Mississippi River that serves as the state border, many of his patients lived in Arkansas and had to travel by bus or ask for a ride from neighbors just to get the treatment they needed. To alleviate this emotional and economic pressure, Simone and his colleagues developed a program where the hospital would pay for the families to stay in nearby hotels. This philosophy is demonstrated in the roots of St. Jude’s current financial assistance policy for which it is highly praised. The hospital vows to never turn away a patient because of the inability to pay.

One of these patients who lived “across the river” in Arkansas was one of Simone’s first patients who was cured. At 10 years old, the boy appeared to be cured, but Simone and his colleagues were careful to warn the mother that this may not be permanent. Simone continued to follow the patient’s progress on a regular basis, and the boy continued to move along, developing as a normal child would.

This case inspired Simone, motivating him to find cures for more children. “When you get one like that, you get very, very anxious to get more. That pushed us on,” he says.

A Mentor

When asked about the great strides made in the 1960s and 1970s for childhood leukemia, Simone credits his mentor, Donald Pinkel, MD. Pinkel was the first director of St. Jude and has been cited as one of the preeminent physicians in the fight against childhood cancers.

“He was there before the building was built—he was already putting in the structure for taking care of patients,” Simone says of Pinkel. “He helped all of us youngsters learn how to conduct clinical trials so that we could find out what kind of treatment was better for that particular leukemia.”

Simone’s philosophies, medical and otherwise, have been formed by watching others. He cites working with seasoned physicians, listening to parents of children with cancer, and treating patients as the best lessons learned throughout his career.

One of the medical philosophies he followed came from Pinkel, which Simone said was best described as an attitude. Pinkel had a certain attitude regarding how physicians should handle and treat patients and their families, stating that both hope and truth are essential components of pediatric care.

Simone went on to serve as the associate director for clinical research. Together with his colleagues, Simone made great strides in the research field. Most notably, he developed the first curative combination treatment for select children with acute lymphoid leukemia, which led to the first patient with the disease to be successfully taken off therapy.

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