Kids' resiliency at heart of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis
Tenth anniversary of the Purple Eagle Program takes place this week at FedEx St. Jude Championship
August 10, 2022
By Helen Ross , PGATOUR.COM
- Riley Raney and his grandmother Kim ahead of the Purple Eagle Program celebration. (Courtesy of St. Jude)
In many ways, Riley is your typical boy. Spunky. Spontaneous. Ready for anything, like catching lizards and frogs or jumping on the trampoline.
So, when the 18-month-old started being a little “fussy,” his mom, Taylor Raney, says she thought he was just having one of his “moments.” And the bruises? Well, what kid doesn’t fall down or bump into something?
When Riley started running a fever of 103 degrees, though, Taylor took him to a doctor who prescribed antibiotics for an ear infection. When the symptoms persisted five days later, she went to another physician, who thankfully decided to run some blood work.
“I knew that 78,000 white blood cells was not normal,” recalls Taylor, who was studying to be a nurse.
Within a day, Riley had been admitted to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. He had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood cancer. Riley’s grandmother, Kim Raney, remembers six doctors walking into the room to deliver the news.
“I thought my heart was going to hit the ground,” says Kim, who has worked at FedEx for 33 years. “ … And then that doctor smiled at his mama and … I'm here to tell you that you will see your son's children.”
Not that the next two-and-a-half years were easy.
Riley had infusions of chemotherapy at St. Jude. He also took a cocktail of drug by mouth.
“We had a pharmacy on our counter basically,” Taylor recalls. There were setbacks, too; infections and fevers that sent him back to the hospital. The family nearly spent one Christmas there.
But Riley is now a cancer survivor, over a year removed from his last chemotherapy treatment that brought the nurses and doctors into his room at St. Jude to sing to him and throw confetti into the air. They all signed a “No More Chemo” poster, too.
On Wednesday morning during the FedEx St. Jude Championship, Riley will be the focus of another celebration, one that marks the 10th anniversary of the Purple Eagle Program.
FedEx started the program to honor a St. Jude patient who is also the child or relative of one of the more than 600,000 employees of the global express transportation company. Riley is this year’s honoree, and his name has been placed under the pilot’s window on a Cessna Caravan turbojet just like the ones that FedEx uses to fly packages to smaller towns in the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America.
The plane, which was transported wingless through Memphis on I-240 and reassembled on the grounds of TPC Southwind is on display where the first event in the FedExCup Playoffs is being contested this week. All nine previous Purple Eagle recipients will be on hand as the rambunctious Riley, who enters kindergarten this year, unveils his logo.
Taylor said the recognition almost validates the struggles her family of five endured. She and her husband Brennan have an older son, Brantley, who has Crohn’s disease, while the youngest, Finley, was just three weeks old when Riley was diagnosed.
“I feel like that it's extremely awesome for the company to do something like this,” Taylor said. “Not only are you honoring someone from St. Jude that's been through a lot, but you're also honoring your own employee who has made a huge career with you guys. I think that says a lot about your company.”
5-year-old St. Jude patient honored at FedEx St. Jude Championship
The Purple Eagle program is the brainchild of Bill West Jr., the vice president of supplemental aircraft operations at FedEx Express and a 38-year employee of the company. He’d seen the delivery trucks on display at the tournament each year, and he thought having one of FedEx’s smaller delivery planes would be even more impactful.
“Then the idea took root, I guess, as a way to further connect with the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and bring more awareness to the life-saving work that it does,” West said. “… And the dedication event is now 10 years strong, as we’re calling it.
“And with all the 10 honorees returning for this anniversary event, it is just miraculous.”
Riley is in remission now, and his family can take heart in the knowledge that about 90% of the children with ALL are cured, according to the St. Jude website. But some of the past Purple Eagle honorees, like 23-year-old Allie Allen, whose plane was dedicated in 2014, are still battling.
She was 14 when she started having focal seizures. Allie said it was like she “spaced out” for a minute. She could hear and see everything, but she just couldn’t react. An EEG revealed seizure activity on the right side of her brain, and MRI showed a tumor the size of a golf ball.
Doctors thought it was benign due to the circular shape, so the eighth-grader went with her dance team to a national competition, which they won. She returned to the reality of an eight-hour surgery and the news that the tumor was cancerous. She had 33 rounds of brain radiation at St. Jude before returning to high school.
Three months later, she got another bad scan.
“This time my whole brain lit up and there were only certain spots that were operable,” Allie said. Doctors told her she would not survive the assault and suggested she do the things on her bucket list while they considered treatment options.
So, Allie and her family went to Disney World. When she returned and had another scan, her brain was completely clean. She says her doctors still can’t explain it. Her neurologist came to see her, crying, because it’s such a miracle that happened, Allie says.
“Have you ever been to St. Jude before,” asks Allie who hopes to work in fundraising for the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities that support St. Jude. “I like to call it the Disney World of hospitals because it's such a different atmosphere. It's honestly amazing. They have this thing called the Alphabet Wall and it's the ABCs of cancer that each patient writes their own letter, and my letter was letter for miracle.
“It's still up there.”
But when Allie was 15, she was diagnosed with another brain tumor. Surgery followed, along with another 33 rounds of full brain and spine radiation. She lost her ability to walk and eat for a time. Doctors told her she probably wouldn’t be alive for her high school graduation.
“I just graduated college,” says the Ole Miss alum proudly. “So, it truly is a miracle that I'm still here today and I'm getting married in December, too. I'm hitting all these big milestones that nobody ever thought I would be alive for.”
Her fiancée is Parker Fleming, and as luck would have it, he happens to work in the IT department at FedEx.
Allie still has a small tumor in her brain, as well as a cyst right next to it. There has been minimal growth for the past five or six years, though, and the doctors at St. Jude are in what she calls a “watch and waiting process.” She still has digestive issues from where the radiation burned through her stomach and suffers from alopecia that has nothing to do with the cancer.
While treating Allie, the doctors at St. Jude have identified five new types of brain cancer. She is one of seven people in the world with hers, which they call a high grade neuroepithelial tumor MN1. There is no treatment yet, but the phenomenal St. Jude researchers are working to find one just as they follow Riley’s progress every year.
Allie remembers feeling like a princess the day her plane was dedicated. Her father, who is a pilot at FedEx, was the one who got to tell her she was going to be a Purple Eagle honoree.
“I was so excited,” she says. “… I love going every year and meeting all the new patients who are blessed to have their name on a plane as well, but also the fact that all of us are still alive is amazing.”
Riley’s grandmother, the woman he calls Maw-Maw, started working at FedEx in the mail room, then moved to accounts receivable and later worked as a courier for 25 years. She now works as a dispatcher for FedEx’s massive fleet of delivery trucks.
Kim was still learning the ropes of her most recent position when Riley got sick. She got the news he was headed to St. Jude at 10 p.m. on a Friday. One of her co-workers told her he’d cover her shift the next day. Her supervisor told her to go and be with her family and take as long as she needed.
“I couldn’t have done it without my co-workers – that’s a fact,” says Kim, who, along with her husband, Dale, took care of Riley’s brothers while he was in the hospital.
One of those co-workers encouraged Kim to submit an application for the Purple Eagle program. Her granddaughter, Maya, who has sickle cell disease, was the 2018 recipient. So, Kim filled out the form but promptly forgot about it until West came to a meeting to give her the news.
“I just sat there because it went straight over my head,” Kim says. “I mean, everybody was looking at me, like how can you not be jumping up and down. … And I looked at my coworker and I said, did he just say, Riley? She said, Kim, yes, he did, and everybody started laughing.”
Like her daughter-in-law, Kim was overwhelmed by the caring people at St. Jude, as well as its positive atmosphere. She said the first time she went to the hospital “it was like, oh my God. I felt like I was at home. I can't explain it, …
“You almost felt guilty from all the kindness,” Kim says, thinking about the homemade masks and blankets, even the food vouchers for the family which was never billed for Riley’s treatment. “You’re just kind of like, what can I do to pay y'all back?”
The way Kim sees it, FedEx and St. Jude is a match made in heaven.
“These are two of the world-renowned names,” she says. “People from all over the world come to St. Jude. But then what people don't realize -- and I've learned this from being a courier and being in dispatch now with trucks -- people don't realize what FedEx does for the world.
“From medical supplies all over the world, the trucks that we take all over the United States for relief from hurricanes, tornadoes or fires, the truckloads of medical supplies that we send and the airplanes that we charter to fly stuff all over the world.
“St. Jude and FedEx -- that can't be a better partnership.”
West is thrilled to see how the Purple Eagle program has endured. He loves getting to know the recipients, and one of his favorite memories is of the first honoree, McKaylee. She had a rare and malignant brain tumor and wasn’t expected to live past 5 but she’s now 15 years old.
Fredrick Smith, the founder of FedEx, was among those in attendance at the dedication that year.
“She jumped up in his arms and said, ‘Thank you for my airplane,’” West remembers.
That just about says it all, doesn’t it?
FedEx Purple Eagle recipients
For more infomation on FedEx Purple Eagle recipients click here.