MTSU alumnus Joel Alsup’s incredible personal journey fuels his work as a professional storyteller at St. Jude children’s hospital
Walking the halls of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis with employee Joel Alsup (’02) is like being in the company of a celebrity. It’s almost impossible to take more than a few steps without Alsup being stopped by a patient, a family, or a fellow staff member for a hug or conversation. Everyone seems to know and love Alsup, whose passion for his work and kind heart is evident in his every interaction.
On an October 2017 visit to the hospital to photograph Alsup, he happened to be stopped in a hallway (one of many times) by a father whose child was a resident at the hospital. The man had seen Alsup’s portrait hanging prominently on a wall of the hospital and had identified him because of it. The portrait depicts the adult Alsup, a one-armed man, holding a picture of himself when he was a 7-year-old patient at the hospital in the 1980s, sitting in his mother’s lap.
As the father began to tell Alsup his family’s tale, Alsup’s full focus came to rest on this father, his story, and his family. Such a genuine interest and compassion for this father revealed everything you need to know about Alsup. In this unexpectedly cheerful environment that is the No. 1 hospital in the world for children fighting cancer, Alsup represents to those living there a litany of positive attributes: he’s a survivor, a beacon of hope, a kindred soul, an invested participant, a caring presence. One part hero to kids, one part a living vestige of hope for parents, Alsup represents the best of this world-renowned hospital—even though he has absolutely nothing to do with health care delivery.
And he will be the first to tell you that his experience and education at Middle Tennessee State University helped pave the way to his relevant presence at cancer-curing St. Jude’s.
Growing Up Fast
Alsup was 7 years old around Christmastime in 1987 when his parents noticed that he had stopped using his dominant right hand to do normal activities like eating or getting ready for school.
“Frankly, I tried to hide it from them. I thought I’d done something stupid to hurt myself like, you know, falling off the back of the couch where I wasn’t supposed to be climbing or something,” Alsup said. “Luckily, they’re great parents and noticed this right away.”
The family visited their Chattanooga pediatrician where an X-ray revealed enough to warrant a trip to the local children’s hospital for a better image. There, an MRI clearly showed a tumor growing in a bone near Alsup’s right shoulder. It had actually broken a bone in his arm, which is why he was in pain and had stopped using his right arm.
From the size of the tumor, and the placement of it, the family’s pediatrician predicted it was probably going to be an osteosarcoma, which is a bone cancer. That likely meant a year’s worth of treatment and probably a major surgery. Since the family pediatrician had previously worked at St. Jude’s in Memphis—a place with world-class protocols for dealing with children with cancer—the Alsup family took the doctor’s advice and loaded up for a trip across the state.
As Alsup said, “That’s kind of where my story began.”
Just a few days after Christmas, the Alsups arrived at St. Jude in the family van. Alongside Alsup were his 4-year-old brother and 1-year-old sister.
“My parents were totally panicked. They both had good jobs and we had good health insurance, but not the kind of insurance they thought would pay for what we were hearing from our doctor in Chattanooga would be a year’s worth of treatment and in a hospital 350 miles away,” Alsup said. “But my parents wanted to have the best care for me, and that’s where they heard the best care was.
“So we got there and found out everything was different there, that St. Jude was going to pay for all our treatment, our housing, our food, our travel. That was just a huge burden lifted off my parents’ shoulders. So, during that year of treatment, they could focus on me and focus on my little brother and sister and not have to worry about selling our house.”
About four months into Alsup’s treatment, though, came bad news. The decision was made to amputate his right arm. The placement of the tumor simply would not allow (at the time at least) the St. Jude doctors to do limb-sparing surgery.
“So I had the amputation April of 1988 and just focused on learning how to use my left hand after that. Because, I’ll be honest with you, I was right-handed but I was terrible at everything I did with my right hand. I was not a good athlete. I wasn’t going to be a classical pianist or a great guitarist or anything like that, so it wasn’t essentially changing anything about me,” Alsup said.
For the last seven months of his treatment at St. Jude, Alsup endured not just chemotherapy but also physical therapy to learn how to use only his left hand. St. Jude also provided Alsup with a homebound teacher so he could keep up with his elementary school assignments. As such, when he arrived back home in November 1988, he hopped right into third grade.
“I didn’t have to worry about repeating second grade. So I just really had everything done for me in my life at St. Jude. I was able to come back to school, and come back to my life as a happy, healthy, confident 8-year-old,” he said.
A True Blue Education
So what does Alsup’s story have to do with MTSU? Fast-forward to high school in Chattanooga: Alsup got involved in with the school’s television station, which did a newscast every day.
“Really, since I was probably 11 or 12, I loved the idea of making movies or making television. So when I got into high school and worked with this TV station, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my career,” Alsup said. That desire attracted him to the campus of MTSU in Murfreesboro, a university highly regarded nationally for its Media Arts studies.
“So I went to MTSU because of their career path in electronic media production. I knew they had a great program up there, and that’s really what drew me to MTSU,” Alsup said. “I loved the program, and it really gave me a good grounding.”
Alsup knew from personal experience as a patient that ALSAC, St. Jude’s fundraising and awareness-raising organization, produced videos showcasing stories about patients at St. Jude. He began to think it would be “awesome” if he could do that for a career.
“I was in my senior year at MTSU, and with my media background, I was able to get an entry-level position at ALSAC and really start my career there,” he said.
That self-described “dream job” parlaying his life and academic experience into a professional position imbued with tremendous personal meaning has lasted 15 years as of January 2018.
“I don’t think I honestly ever thought about going back to St. Jude until I was at MTSU,” Alsup said. “When I was at MTSU, I started to realize the power of a story and the power that we can have in that sort of medium to share life experiences with others.
“And that the things that I like to do I could apply to the world and become not only a better student at college but a better citizen of the world, as well.”
Alsup said classes with then-professor Michael Johnson entailing multi-camera directing and making a short film cemented his confidence in “shaping the story.”
“So that’s really what honed my medium,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I love doing this. I love being able to tell the story.”
Sharing His Gift
Now as supervisor of Creative Media Services for ALSAC/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Alsup works closely with the national direct marketing department to create direct response TV, whether that’s an hour-long program or a two-minute spot where he is getting to meet the patients and their families, interviewing them, and then sharing their story.
“I want the rest of the world to see the inside of St. Jude and what goes on here and the lives that we can actually impact. So I guess, really, I’m a short-form documentarian of the patients and the families who come through St. Jude,” he said.
“It’s a blessing for me to get to know these families. And I think every time I think I’ve heard the most amazing and compelling story ever, I’ll hear another one. So it really is just an amazing job.”
No doubt when Alsup walks in the door to meet a St. Jude family for the first time, he provides hope of positive outcomes for their child’s health.
“My biggest hope—and why I would never want to work anywhere else—is that they can look at me and go, you know, this can be my child 30 years from now. They could be doing the job they want to do, making an impact on the world the way they want to, whether video production or any career they want to do,” Alsup said. “I can hopefully be that example for the families and the patients going through that now.”
Living by Example
Alsup has done more than survive cancer and pursue the education needed to give back in a professional capacity to the hospital that gave him so much. His personal pursuits, including his status as a triathlete, also serve as an inspiration to current St. Jude patients.
“I grew up with a swimming pool, and as soon as I had my amputation, I was back in the pool. So, later, I started learning how to do backstroke for my triathlons,” Alsup said. “I’ve got a retrofitted bike where all the gears and things are on the left side so I don’t have to worry about shifting. And then, usually, I just try to survive the run. Once you make it to the run, you can limp home if you need to. I’m far from being the world’s best triathlete but . . . a lot of times I’m able to do them as a fundraising athlete for St. Jude. It’s just my way to give back, too.”
Clearly there’s no room for feeling sorry for yourself in Alsup’s mind.
“I realize somebody could point to me and go, ‘Oh, gosh, you lost an arm—you must have had a traumatic experience as a child,’” he said. “But I’m so fortunate. Other than the fact I lost my arm, I’ve had no side effects from my treatment in any way whatsoever. So this is my simple way to push myself and to be active, and a lot of times I’m able to get the word out about St. Jude by doing these things, too.”
The message he likes to express most is the fact that even after decades of serving children with cancer and their families, St. Jude hasn’t changed a bit.
“It’s always been the same mission, that no family pays for anything, not for treatment, travel, housing, or food,” he said. “The best thing that’s happened since I’ve been a patient there, since the doors opened in 1962, is to see the survival rates go up . . . from 20 percent to 80 percent today. And with my particular disease, osteosarcoma, now in 95 percent of cases like mine where the tumor is localized to the bone, they can do limb-sparing, and the child gets to keep the limb, whether it’s an arm or a leg. That’s fantastic news.”
What’s the most rewarding aspect of his job? Describing it as “the ideal job” and one he “would never want to leave,” Alsup said there’s nothing quite like seeing kids grow up.
“I’ve been there nearly 15 years, so I’ve seen kids go from 10 years old to 25 years old, literally growing up before my eyes,” he said. “And that makes me so happy to see these kids going from very, very ill to now making their own difference in the world.”
Alsup is one of those kids. And his storytelling—a craft he honed at MTSU—is making a big difference. MTSU
St. Jude Stories
Asked to relate a story or two from St. Jude that really stick out in his mind as powerful examples of the miracle that is the hospital, creative media supervisor Joel Alsup cites two.
“I think the ones that get to me most are the osteosarcoma patients, so the kid’s got the same disease I did. With osteosarcoma, it’s one of those diseases that if you catch it like we did with mine, where it hasn’t spread, it’s very, very treatable and survival rates are very good. If you don’t catch it in time, and it’s spread, it’s not good. It’s not very survivable. So, I’ve had both the pleasure and the heartache of meeting a lot of kids who have the exact same disease as me, but they didn’t catch it in the same time and they’ve passed away.
“The most recent example I can think of is, I met a kid from Honduras who came here and was treated for osteosarcoma in his leg, and he met a girl here who was a patient as well. And they fell in love. They were teenagers and fell in love at St. Jude and just had this beautiful, amazing relationship until he passed away. And I got to tell their story and share that with the world and, as tough as it was to tell—because it doesn’t end the way we want it to—it was one of the most beautiful, sorrowful experiences I’ve had in my entire life. Because I asked both of them, you know, would you guys trade this experience—if you knew you could not have cancer and be totally normal, would you go back and trade this, but it would mean you wouldn’t be here and know each other? Both of them said: ‘I wouldn’t trade it for the world. St. Jude has put me where I wanted to be and I’m so glad I met him/her because of what this journey meant to us.’ ”
[Editor’s Note: See the story of Luis and McKendree that Alsup highlighted here]
by Darby Campbell and Drew Ruble