While the lives of the children in the following story started out difficult, their hardships paved the way for the joy they would experience in the future.
Today, they realize the significance of their story and why they must share it with the world. It’s a love story that’s more than 20 years in the making.
As a child, Joel Alsup was an energetic, sports-loving boy who lived in Tennessee. But when he started having problems with his right arm near a bone in his right shoulder, the family learned there was a tumor.
Trouble With His Arm
“Joel was 7-years-old, and he was having a hard time buckling his seatbelt, and I thought he was just messing around,” his father, Bob Alsup, told The New York Times. “We used to play catch with a tennis ball in the den, and I saw he was reaching for the ball with his left hand. I knew something wasn’t right.”
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
After several meetings with doctors, the Alsup family headed for Memphis for treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Alsup learned he had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, which resulted in the amputation of his right arm.
Around the same time, a similar story was unfolding hundreds of miles away in Missouri. A little girl named Lindsey Wilkerson learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Wilkerson recalled being frightened by her diagnosis and then about the cost of her treatment.
“My parents were checking their bank account. They were going to put our house on the market to sell everything, to hopefully be able to provide me with the care that could save my life,” Wilkerson told TODAY.com. But St. Jude officials reached out to them to let them know their financial burden has been lifted.
The facility never bills their patients for treatments, housing or food. “They reminded our patients that at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital we don’t have to worry about money, that it’s already been taken care of,” Wilkerson said.
Fighting For Their Lives
Both she and Alsup underwent grueling treatment and while Alsup’s arm was amputated, Wilkerson was receiving three years of chemotherapy. But in the heaviest moments of their lives, the two found each other and developed a deep friendship.
St. Jude’s Fundraiser
They met for the first time in 1993 at a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Both of our families were invited to speak and share our personal St. Jude journeys,” Wilkerson said. “I remember being very impressed with Joel, he was really cute and had a great sense of humor.”
Crossing Paths Again
“I remember very clearly meeting Lindsey for the first time,” Alsup said. In the following years, Wilkerson and Alsup would cross paths at other St. Jude functions, or whenever their medical appointments overlapped. After some time, they lost touch when both went off to college.
Wilkerson attended the University of Central Arkansas, where she received a degree in communications, and Alsup went to Middle Tennessee State University, where he majored in television production. Wilkerson’s dream since she was 10 years old, was to come back to work at St. Jude.
She even spent time serving as a volunteer fund-raiser for St. Jude during her college tenure. Then in May 2003, between college graduation and landing what she called her “dream job,” as an assistant in the event and patient liaison department, Wilkerson got married.
Marriage And Divorce
Her marriage lasted 12 years until she got a divorce in 2015. Wilkerson shares a 12-year-old daughter, Audrey, and an 8-year-old son, Jacob, with her former husband. She explained to The New York Times that when she became a mom, she began looking at the young patients at St. Jude as if they were her own.
Working At St. Jude’s
“I used to think, ‘I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there,’ but having children of my own shook me like an earthquake, it really changed my perspective,” Wilkerson said. Eventually, Wilkerson moved to Memphis and took a job in the St. Jude’s fundraising awareness organization. Alsup also worked at the hospital, becoming a supervisor in the creative media services division.
Friendship Was Reignited
Alsup said that the day Wilkerson walked back through the door at St. Jude, was the day a friendship was reignited. “For the better part of 12 years, we became the best of friends,” he said. Their relationship remained platonic until 2 ½ years ago.
“We connected on the complexities of our situations, and how it changed the way we see the world,” Wilkerson said. “We have this almost sense of urgency about living life, this gratitude, this desire to give back.” In 2016, when Wilkerson was watching a movie with her daughter, Alsup told her, “I love you.”
She quickly said, “I love you back,” only to think that she actually liked him first. “So the ball had been in his court for nearly 25 years.” Wilkerson’s mother, Ginny Cook, said the family was delighted when her daughter began dating Alsup. “We’ve known Joel’s family as long as we’ve known him,” she said.
“We are so pleased when they started seeing each other. He’s wonderful to our grandchildren.” Fast forward to September 1, and the pair was married at the Danny Thomas/Alsac Pavilion, named for the comedian who founded St. Jude in 1962.
Brent Powell, an Episcopal deacon and the head chaplain at St. Jude, married the couple and recalled how he had witnessed their journey unfold. “During your youth, a cancer diagnosis invaded your life, but you endured and defeated it,” said Powell, who has known the couple for more than 30 years.
“Now you are giving back, paying it forward. You are two of the most loving people I know,” Powell said. “It only took you 20 years to confess your love,” he said in front of approximately 150 wedding guests. Another wedding guest, Shadyac, said of the newly married couple, “they’ve loved each other forever. Later in the ceremony, Alsup, Wilkerson, and the two children, each lit one of four unity candles, in honor of the family they are forming.
Wilkerson, now 37, and Alsup, 38, said they’re cancer free, but they’re required to submit medical exams every five years to monitor their health. Alsup said, “coming back to a place that’s so dear to our hearts has been one of the greatest honors of my life.” Wilkerson said, “Thanks to St. Jude, I was lucky enough to marry the love of my life, my best friend.”