By Ruma Kumar
Jackson Advocate Guest Writer
For the longest time, Dr. Vernon Rayford didn’t understand his father’s love of running. But then in his 30s, when his body reminded him it needed new ways to get strong, he laced up his sneakers and began jogging some of the same routes his father had: past quiet neighborhoods with neat brick homes, prayerful Methodist churches, and kudzu draped North Mississippi hills.
Running brought him closer to his father. And then one day in December 2016, as they ran the St. Jude Memphis Half Marathon together, running unexpectedly brought him cause and purpose, too.
“It’s my favorite part of the race, going through campus,” Rayford said. “Seeing the patients there, knowing who you’re (running) for, it just really spoke to me.”
Over the last six years, Rayford has run marathons in New York, Chicago, and across the country in support of St. Jude. This September, he is planning to run in Berlin, Germany on behalf of the research hospital.
As he learned more about St. Jude – how it had opened as an inclusive hospital in 1962 at the height of civil rights strife in the South and welcomed children regardless of race, and how it employed and promoted doctors, scientists, and staff of color, as well – Rayford knew this was a cause that deserved his support.
Rayford’s support for St. Jude grew even more as he began to feel kinship with a renowned African American physician who helped St. Jude become a leader in care and research for sickle cell disease. This year, Rayford made a $10,000 commitment toward the campaign honoring the late Dr. Rudolph Jackson, one of the first Black doctors at St. Jude.
Rayford learned that in the 1960s, Dr. Jackson’s care for patients with conditions such as rampant anemia, parasitic infections, and growth impairments led him to develop a program under which St. Jude enrolled thousands of local infants and mothers to receive nutritional assistance, medicine, and even diapers. Ultimately, that program served as a prototype for WIC, the federal initiative for women, infants and children.
Rayford himself has spent his years as a primary care physician in North Mississippi helping improve the health of families in rural, often marginalized communities of color. During the pandemic, Rayford co-founded the Northeast Mississippi Coalition Against COVID-19, an organization focused on educating underrepresented families about the importance of vaccinations and addressing health inequities accelerated by the pandemic.
“I wish I’d known him, because that would’ve been an incredible (lesson) of the challenges of being the first, of being someone who started work when things were about as bad as it could be in terms of civil rights,” said Rayford, who is also the President of the Theta Iota Sigma Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. in the Greater Tupelo area. Rayford has galvanized the local chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council in support of the Dr. Jackson campaign.
“It was easy to say I want to support that,” he said.
Rayford said he’s particularly moved by the pioneering work Jackson did in the treatment of sickle cell disease at St. Jude. Jackson ventured into low-income neighborhoods in Memphis to enhance the education and treatment of children and families affected by the debilitating, painful, and often deadly disease. By the early 1970s, Jackson had built the program to such a stature that he was hired to lead the federal government’s efforts to fight the disease.
“Hearing about his dedication, persistence, innovation, and hearing how that led to 40 years of lives saved, improved quality of lives…of lives not measured by time between emergency room visits, time between crises, it’s inspiring,” Rayford said.
“He could’ve just stopped at being the first, but he went forward and pioneered and created a program the government used as a model for the country,” Rayford said. “That’s a powerful message to me.”