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Marriott Worker Wins Top Hospitality Employee Award

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (May 2, 2005) -- The St. Jude hospital children and parents who stayed at the Downtown Marriott Hotel where Sarah Duffala worked pumped her up for her own cancer battle.

"I saw them come through, they were all smiling," she said. "I said, 'I can't be any different.'" Through her nine months of chemotherapy every other week, starting more than two years ago, she wasn't any different. Although she changed to a less intensive job at the hotel, she never missed a day during her treatments.

To her, it was no big deal.

"It's almost like you have a hangover every day," Duffala said. "I wasn't going to feel any better at home than here. Being here was fun for me."

That attitude helped win her the American Hotel & Lodging Association Outstanding Employee of the Year Award. She is in Las Vegas today to receive the honor.

Duffala, 49, was banquet captain at the Downtown Marriott when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma nearly three years ago.

Her boss, Doug Edwards, realized she couldn't work the 50- to 60-hour weeks, including nights, and survive. Edwards moved her to a weekday job in the sales office and Duffala scheduled her chemo for Fridays so she had the weekends to recover.

"She was fighting for her life. She never complained," said Edwards, who nominated Duffala for the award. He retired as general manager of the hotel in December.

"Most of us, let's admit it, we'd be looking for sympathy. We'd be looking for someone to take care of us," Edwards said. "She took care of others."

On the top of her list, the 70 to 80 children being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and their families who were staying in the hotel while the Grizzlies House was being built.

"She just took it upon herself to take ownership of making sure those kids had the most enjoyable stay possible," Edwards said.

That included arranging parties, baking cookies and visiting the children.

"I got my inspiration from the kids," she said.

Duffala went to work at the hotel when she came to Memphis from Jackson, Tenn. -- she wanted to live in a larger city -- about six years ago. She had spent 23 years working in restaurants there and in Chicago, where she grew up.

She started as a server in the hotel restaurant, but, before long was promoted to banquet captain, a job she had for about 3 years before the cancer diagnosis.

After Duffala was in sales for about a year, hotel executives decided to revamp the gift shop and add a gourmet coffee bar when they built 200 more rooms.

They put Duffala in charge.

"I asked to take that," she said. "I like the variety. I like the challenge. This is a good environment for me."

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To see more of The Commercial Appeal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.commercialappeal.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.

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