NEW YORK - A picture of her beloved dog K.J. has to suffice these days for my sister Robin Roberts, who in the first 100 days of her post-bone marrow transplant must avoid contact with any threat to her fragile immune system.
Everywhere I go, people ask me how she is doing. On Friday, I traveled to New York to talk with her, in her first extensive on-camera interview.
“Look at me! Look at me now,” she laughed when I asked her how she is feeling. “I am blessed to be doing as well as I am. Now I have to admit, when you asked to talk to me like this, I thought we would be doing this in my home. We're here in the hospital though.”
Robin explained that a common virus had sent her to the hospital for a brief stay last week, as her immune system continues to recover and doctors take extra precautions to keep her healthy at this state.
“Just a little tune-up, check under the hood, kick the tires a little bit,” she joked.
“It's a journey that kind of zig zags and there are complications and things like that but I feel good, I feel stronger everyday, so I am blessed.”
Our sister Dorothy and I were blessed when we were there that day in September when Dr. Sergio Giralt gave Robin my stem cells, as part of the bone marrow transplant that the doctors hoped could cure her MDS, or pre-leukemia.
“When I think of that moment and what it was like, you can say rebirth, to be reborn. It's a new beginning. It's like you gave me life,” she said.
“Our dear mother gave me life. You gave me life. And I look at it as a clean slate and how many people can say at this point in their life that they get a do over? That they get a chance to start again? And that's how I feel, that in many ways I am starting again.”
I asked Robin how she first knew that the transplant was working.
“It was brutal the first couple of weeks after the transplant. You know you're so happy that you're having the transplant, you have new life, but oh my goodness. I had an IV pole and you couldn't even see the pole for all the bags that were on it, the pain medication and that.”
“I remember the doctors telling me, ‘We're not going to tell you when it's working. You're going to tell us by how you feel.’ And just like that it was like 10 days later, I woke up and said ‘How y’all been?!’”
“When your white blood cells went to work, all the medicine in the world is great and I'm so grateful for medical science that we have it, but it was your cells in my body that made me better,” she said.
Robin said that, first and foremost, she hopes for good health from all of the medical procedures she has endured. But secondly, she hopes for an even greater good.
“The bigger picture here is what you all (WWL-TV) have been doing and stations all across the country, in getting the word out about the need for bone marrow donors,” she said. That includes efforts on college campuses, including Southeastern Louisiana University, Robin’s alma mater, which organized a “Swabbin’ for Robin” bone marrow donor drive.
“College campuses have been fantastic in really heeding the call. So when I think of the Southeastern Lions, ‘Swabbin’ for Robin,’ and people have sent me video from the football game and I saw that and it just brought tears of joy to my eyes.”
Unfortunately, Robin and our family have had our share of tears. Our mother, Lucimarian Tolliver Roberts, passed away just before Robin entered the hospital for the transplant in late August.
“When we both made it home that day, we didn't know that she was going to pass that night and I truly believe that she knew that she was not able to do the work that she wanted to do as mom here in her physical vessel,” Robin said. “So she found a way. She found a way to be with me.”
Robin encourages others who are facing similar challenges not to give up and she is grateful for the prayers.
“I have felt the prayers. I have felt people lifting me up. I put no small measure on that as the reason I am doing as well as I am,” she reflected.
“I am eternally grateful for that, so for people going through it, surround yourself with prayer warriors and people who know that you will do this. And we're all a little bit stronger, a little bit stronger than we think we are.”
“It's not how you start but how you finish,” she said, echoing the spirit of her beloved New Orleans Saints.
As for when Robin will return to work at ABC’s Good Morning America, she said her doctors will determine when her immune system is strong enough for her to return to work in one of the busiest places in the world - Times Square.