St. Jude patient beats cancer 3 times, plans run for TN Senate

Published: Jan. 6, 2018 at 3:50 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 6, 2018 at 12:18 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Gabriela Salinas' life story has plot twists worthy of a Steven Spielberg film.

The latest turn of events has the three-time cancer survivor puling a petition to run for the Tennessee State Senate.

"We need better leadership," said the now 29-year-old after obtaining paperwork to qualify as a Democratic candidate for Senate District 31: Germantown, east Shelby County and Hickory Hill.

That's a long way from her native Bolivia where in 1996 doctors discovered "Gabby" had a malignant tumor. She was 7.

The Salinas family decided to travel to New York City to seek treatment for their daughter.

That's where doctors determined the child was in a fight with a cancer called Ewing sarcoma in the form of a tumor at the base of her spine. But lacking medical insurance, New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center told the Salinas family they'd have to produce a fortune: a $250,000 deposit for treatment.

That harsh reality was too much to bear for Gabby's aunt, a waitress at a New York restaurant where a reporter for the New York Daily News noticed her tears.

Gabby's story promptly appeared in the next day's newspaper.

The report captured the attention of the one New Yorker who would change Gabby's life: Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny Thomas, Founder of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

Thomas made arrangements for Gabby to travel to St. Jude where families do not receive a bill for treatment, food, accommodations, or travel. Those costs are covered by the generous donors to St. Jude.

Unable to walk as the tumor pressed on her spine, Gabby underwent chemotherapy and radiation.  The treatment worked and Gabby survived her first of her three cancer fights.

But then tragedy struck the Salinas family like never before.

On April 14, 1997, a traffic accident on Interstate 40 in West Tennessee killed Gabby's father, her sister Valentina, and paralyzed her then expectant mother, Jacqueline.

They were rushed to a hospital in Brownsville, TN.

"The hospital that my siblings and I were taken to when our family had a fatal accident in Brownsville had closed. That was a major driver for me to pull my petition---knowing that we have entire communities without a lifeline," said the aspiring candidate.

Haywood Park Community Hospital closed in Brownsville in July 2014.

Salinas says advocating for better healthcare for Tennesseans will be a launching point for the campaign.

A 2011 Biochemistry graduate of Christian Brothers University, Salinas devoted several years working for the hospital that saved her life.

She served as a research technologist in the Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics at St. Jude.

For the past year, Salinas has been studying for a doctorate in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Kentucky.

"I am a three-time cancer survivor and the daughter of a paraplegic, " Salinas said. She knows first-hand of the challenges people with pre-existing conditions face when seeking health insurance coverage.

"I know that I am not alone in this struggle; many people in our community are struggling to get coverage or be able to afford the coverage they have," Salinas said.

Even while overcoming her latest cancer fights, Salinas helped establish "Danny's Dream Team," former St. Jude patients who run races that raise funds for St. Jude in honor of hospital founder Danny Thomas.

The would-be candidate is taking on a monumental political challenge.

Veteran GOP state senator Brian Kelsey, 40, was unopposed in his re-election to the District 31 Senate seat in a solidly Republican district in 2014.

A lawyer with a practice based in Collierville, Kelsey chairs the state senate's Judiciary committee.

Kelsey ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 2016 for the 8th District seat won by David Kustoff.

Kelsey also pulled a petition to run for re-election to the District 31 seat on Friday, Jan. 5, the first day candidates for the Tennessee legislature could do so.

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