Richburg family thankful for a day with Collin

Collin Roberts, 2, left, and sister Katie Roberts, 3, visit a pumpkin patch last month.
Collin Roberts, 2, left, and sister Katie Roberts, 3, visit a pumpkin patch last month.

The Roberts family will eat Thanksgiving dinner today inside the Ronald McDonald House in Memphis, Tenn.

They usually spend this day with their relatives in Great Falls, having lunch with Tessa's folks and supper with Joey's family. But today the Richburg couple will dine with their children, Joey's parents and other families who, like them, have children being treated at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Joey Roberts is a 29-year-old foreman for a company that installs traffic signals. Tessa Roberts, 27, is a pediatric nurse at Palmetto Health Richland Children's Hospital in Columbia.

They're in Memphis because their 2-year-old son, Collin, is fighting cancer. They're also here because of bikers in Lancaster, firefighters in Great Falls and the people who sold candles, Boston Butts and hash so they could be together.

"You never expect that something like this will happen to your child, but when it does it's devastating," Tessa wrote in an e-mail. "Having the support from your family, friends and community is what gets you through it. I think this is what is great about living in a small community. Everybody knows you or at least someone else that knows you."

The Roberts journey began back in March, when typically energetic, healthy Collin began suffering from fevers that lasted for days. He had bouts of vomiting and he didn't want to eat or play.

Collin had to be hospitalized when he quit eating and drinking. The doctors said he had a viral illness. Let it run its course, they said.

Eventually, Collin started improving, but Tessa sensed that something wasn't right. Collin didn't act like other children his age. He couldn't run or climb without falling.

In early September, Collin again quit eating and playing. He threw up daily. His head was always tilted to one side. He'd sleep on the couch, and waken only to touch his head and whimper.

Collin saw his pediatrician four times over two weeks before being admitted to Palmetto Richland. Again, the doctors said viral illness.

But two doctors Tessa worked with wanted to make sure they didn't miss something.

So they scanned Collin from his head to his pelvis. On Sept. 26, three doctors and a nurse came to Collin's room around 3 p.m. to talk with Tessa.

Collin had a brain tumor, they said. Some 7.1 centimeters long, it was lodged in the back of his brain in an area that controls coordination and balance.

Back in Great Falls, Richard Collins got the message about his grandson. He then called his wife Louise on her cell phone:

"You need to get on home. They found something with Collin."

When Louise pulled up to the house, she saw her husband's tears.

"Please tell me it ain't a brain tumor," she said.

Collin went into surgery the next morning at 6 a.m. He didn't come out until 4 p.m.

"Very pleased," is how a doctor described the results of the surgery. He told the family he thought he'd gotten all of the tumor. An MRI confirmed that theory.

Although the tumor was gone, cancer cells remained that needed to be treated. The doctors said Collin had a rare type of tumor that only develops in about 200 children in the United States each year.

Chemotherapy hasn't been effective in treating this cancer. Radiation was the better option, but the treatment is rarely performed on children under age 3 because of concerns that it could harm brain growth.

But Tessa's research led her to a doctor at St. Jude who could perform a specialized form of radiation on children.

Some doctors cautioned her about allowing Collin to undergo radiation at such a young age. Her instinct told her St. Jude was the right choice.

Meanwhile, word of Collin's struggles spread fast through Great Falls, a small town where people step up in times of need.

People hosted a hot dog and bake sale at a local Methodist church. Town firefighters held out boots one day and collected cash from those passing by.

In Chester, there was a Boston Butt and hash sale. In Lancaster, bikers went on a charity ride. There was a gun raffle and a candle sale.

"Everybody's just been so good about helping them," Louise Collins said. "Without all these donations, I don't know how they would have made it."

"It's a miracle," Richard Collins said.

St. Jude paid for Collin and Tessa's flight to Memphis, housing and meals, but the donations helped Joey and Collin's 3-year-old sister, Katie, join them.

Collin received the first of his 33 scheduled radiation treatments on Sunday. He's expected receive those doses five days a week. The family plans to be in Memphis through January.

Tessa said the treatments don't delay Collin much. He's still groggy after being sedated, but "after that wears off, he's up running around, playing like any normal 2-year-old would."

Doctors had worried that because Collin's tumor was wrapped around so many nerves, he might have trouble shrugging his shoulders, swallowing or moving his tongue.

He doesn't.

Collin is himself, the boy who loves swings and Elmo, and the child who inspired strangers to help his family.

He is why they are thankful today.