Included in Friday’s edition of The Daily News was my story about longtime St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital employee Miss Penny. Since I cover health care, I write pretty frequently about St. Jude, with the focus typically on the hospital’s clinical work.
But Miss Penny isn’t a pediatric oncologist or a research scientist; she’s doesn’t spend her days looking for a cure for cancer or performing life-saving clinical procedures. Still her role at St. Jude also carries significant value for patients. As a guest services representative, her welcoming face is the first many pediatric patients see when they walk through the door, and she provides what she calls “the nurturing things” to children and their families. Miss Penny — herself a mother, grandmother and cancer survivor – seems to know instinctively just what people need, whether it’s a warm blanket, a reassuring smile, or just someone to listen.
The first time I met her I was touring the hospital. Without being prompted, she began telling me how much she loved working at St. Jude and how privileged she felt to spend each day in the presence of children whom she describes as “my heroes – every one of them.” Truth be told, Miss Penny’s sincerity moved me to tears on that tour, and I knew right away that I wanted to share her story with readers.
I arrived at the hospital last Wednesday morning to interview her. It was Ash Wednesday and, with my busy schedule, I wasn’t sure when I was going to find time to get my ashes. But it just so happens that — in addition to all the other hats she wears — Miss Penny is a Catholic liturgical minister. Immediately after our interview, she and I walked down the corridor to St. Jude’s chapel, and there, along with staff members and families of patients, I received my ashes from Miss Penny.
Danny Thomas founded the hospital after praying to St. Jude Thaddeus, asking the patron saint of hopeless causes to “help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.” Fifty years later, St. Jude continues to be a beacon of hope to children and their families from around the world. And it continues to be staffed by nurturing people like Miss Penny, who are so deeply dedicated to delivering on Danny’s promise.
I was honored to spend the first day of Lent, a time of reflection, with Miss Penny and her heroes at St. Jude.