A STORY OF LOVE AND HOPE: A Father, His Daughter, and a Box of Valentines
By, Vallerie Malkin
“What I really want to tell him is to pick up that baby of his and hold her tight, to set the moon on the edge of her crib and to hang her name up in the stars.”― Jodi Picoult, “My Sister’s Keeper”
At 6’2”, Don Robinowitz has a commanding presence and talks with the easy confidence of a happy and productive man.
As a litigator of acrimonious family law cases in Houston, Texas, Don is accustomed to dealing with stress. More often than not, when a problem arises, Don is confident he will find a solution.
Sometimes lightning strikes from clear, blue skies, and there is no way you could have prepared for the fallen tree limb or the blown-out transformer.
That’s what it was like for Don two years ago when without warning, the news came that his 8-year-old daughter, Mila, had melanoma. It was April 13.
Don’s world was shattered. “This frightened us to our core,” says Don.
A Freckle with an Agenda
Don and his wife, Nikki, were both aware of a freckle on Mila’s right hand, just above her wrist, which had been there as long as they could remember.
One day, Nikki noticed the freckle on Mila’s hand had blown up to the size of a pencil eraser. Now, it resembled a beauty mark that Nikki had on her face for most of her life.
“We were hopeful because of that resemblance that the raised freckle on Mila was nothing serious,” says Don. Erring on the side of caution, they decided to get it checked out by a dermatologist.
Nikki called the office and got an appointment four or five weeks later. The dermatologist took a biopsy of the growth and said he would call when the results were in.
Don remembers vividly the Thursday in April when he received the news. A softball coach for his daughter’s team two days a week, he drove to meet Mila and her teammates at the field. When he arrived, Mila was out in the field with her friends warming up. Nikki’s car was still in the parking lot, which surprised him because she usually headed home after drop-off.
As Don approached Nikki’s car, he saw her leaning against the outfield fence on the opposite side of the parking lot, crying.
Nikki told him the dermatologist had called about Mila’s biopsy results. “She could barely get it out,” says Don. “She was completely overwhelmed.”
Don grabbed his cell and called the dermatologist, who confirmed it was melanoma. Stunned and shaking, he asked, “Is she on a timeline? Is it terminal?”
Melanoma is notorious for spreading to other organs. The dermatologist told him they tested it twice, and it was definitely melanoma. He said Mila would need to be tested further.
While Mila and her friends played softball under a blue sky on a sunny day, Don and Nikki grappled with the idea that their daughter might be seriously ill. They agonized over how to tell her and her two brothers, 12-year-old Beau, and 23-year-old Tyler.
Due to her August birthday, Mila is younger than her peers and easy to spot from afar because she is smaller than they are. Despite her diminutive size, Don explains, Mila has always been an “old soul,” and even has a couple of older friends at school.
Don describes his daughter like this: “glass half-full, happy, funny, good kid.”
Mila is involved in a lot of activities, has a lot of friends, and is engaged in her school work. Her parents wanted to keep her on track.
A Little Help from His Friends
The first person Don contacted after hanging up with the dermatologist was his brother, Kevin, in Dallas: “I rely on him a lot. We are very close.”
Kevin answered Don’s call while at a high school alumni golf tournament with another old friend of Don’s, a respected and well-connected doctor, who arranged a consultation at Texas Children’s Hospital for the following Monday.
That night Don reached out to another friend—a surgeon and his wife, who is a physician’s assistant at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. They helped arrange an appointment at MD Anderson for that same Monday.
Don, who had heart valve replacement surgery in 2012, knew MD Anderson first-hand because that same year he had a cancer health scare of his own. His case turned out to be inconclusive, and he had been pleased with the care and follows up with MD Anderson once a year.
The surgeon at MD Anderson told Don and Nikki about a recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine she had been looking at. The study indicated that if the cancer had not invaded the body, a person could be closely monitored for five years without any chemo, radiation, or medication.
Don and Nikki decided to entrust MD Anderson with the care of their daughter. They were hopeful, but the anxiety was fierce. Don recalls crumbling one day in front of Nikki, and the impact that had on her.
Says Don, “I learned real quick if Nikki sees I’m anyone other than ‘Superman’ she becomes distraught, so I made sure I cried on my way to work, or closed the door of my office, or took a walk.”
He knew that his wife was shedding tears of her own while he was at work; when he came home she put up a brave front, but her face was often streaked with tears.
A Second Family
Don knew it would be impossible to shield Mila from the fact that she had a very serious diagnosis since they were in and out of the hospital.
But Mila and her parents felt at home right away during her visits because doctors, nurses, and staff were supportive and attentive. He and Nikki also felt an instant connection with the other patients’ families: “You see a cross-section of people of all ages, races, religions, and attitudes.”
A young patient left an indelible impression on Don in the lab one day: Cheerful and encouraging, she comforted Mila while the technician drew Mila’s blood. Don looked down to the floor and noticed the girl was missing one of her legs. “You become pretty aware right away that no matter what, you’re fortunate.”
Mila and her parents arrived for Mila’s medical procedures on April 30. Nikki was able to lay on the hospital bed with her daughter until doctors knocked Mila out with a sedative.
“Mila’s attitude was incredible,” says Don, who remembers his heart sinking as the medical team wheeled Mila down the corridor to the operating room. Don kept the lid on his emotions: “I knew the whole time I would have to stay strong.”
The medical team at MD Anderson performed wide local excision surgery on Mila’s hand, then they conducted a sentinel node biopsy. The surgeon then grafted skin from behind her belly button to the concave spot on her hand.
When Don, Nikki, and Mila returned to the hospital a couple of weeks later for an ultrasound, CT scan, and full-body x-ray, doctors diagnosed her with Stage IIIA (cT2a, cN1a, cM0) melanoma. They noted some microscopic traces of the tumor on one nodule, but no others, and were confident that it had not spread to other organs.
This news paved the way for Mila’s treatment plan, which would consist of close monitoring (blood work, ultra-sound, chest x-ray) for five years, four times a year. Once a year they would conduct a full-body CT scan.
Hat Tip: Village
According to Don, Mila’s recovery went well and she healed quickly: “Kids are resilient.” He credits his daughter with a positive attitude, and the support of friends and neighbors in the small community of West University Place, a small town close to Houston with a close-knit, family-centric vibe. “We have a great little village,” says Don. “It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting.”
One of the highlights of the community is West University Elementary School, which has such an excellent reputation that many residents choose to send their kids there over private school.
At the time of surgery, Mila’s homeroom and math teacher at West University was Alyce McLamb, who was known for running a tight ship. Math was Mila’s favorite class, so the tight ship was also a fun ship on which to learn math.
According to Don, McLamb started class 30 minutes early, twice a week, to give kids an edge on their STAAR Interim Assessments test.
In anticipation of Mila’s absence, McLamb went to work on making sure she would not fall behind on the standardized test prep while she was recuperating at home, and she also sought accommodations so Mila would be able to take the test.
Don will never forget the Saturday McLamb came to the house during Mila’s recovery to drop off a poster the kids had made for her. McLamb spent a lot of time talking to and getting to know the family; Mila was over the moon.
“Mila’s teacher’s visit was a huge part of her recovery and ability to get back to normal,” says Don. “We never could have predicted it would have this effect on Mila or all of us; I will never forget it.”
Mila was anxious to get back to her co-curricular activities. A second baseman and outfielder, Mila still had a full cast on her hand that prevented her from participating in playoffs. Don and Nikki brought her to all the games so she could at least see her friends.
When Mila’s cast came off she was able to hang out with her besties again, baking brownies, walking the village shops, playing with makeup, watching movies, jumping on a trampoline, swimming in the pool, making TikTok mobile videos, and posting on Instagram.
She also added on a new sport: tennis. One of Don’s clients was a professional tennis player-turned-coach, and when Don mentioned Mila had tried tennis once and liked it, the client offered to give her lessons.
Little Girl, Big Story
In September, Mila was honored at AIM’s 11th Annual Steps Against Melanoma Walk in Houston and was invited to talk about her melanoma journey.
Don and Nikki waited until a few days before the event to tell Mila about the speaking portion of the invitation so she wouldn’t have time to stress; there would be about 500 people there.
“We told her, ‘This is your chance to leave them with a good ‘taste’ of you,’” Don remembers saying.
According to Don, Mila was nervous about speaking, but she prepared her comments in advance, and everything went beautifully. She thanked her family and friends for their support and gave a special nod to her MD Anderson family.
At the Steps Against Melanoma events, medical staff are often present to do skin checks and talk about sun protection. Melanoma survivors of all ages and from all walks of life attend the walks. Their stories are as varied as they are.
“This could happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion, skin tone, or economic status,” says Don. “It is critical to be aware of changes in your body, and to take preventative actions against melanoma.”
Don and Nikki are grateful and optimistic. “We were told that it was critical how quickly we got her in there,” says Don. They still dread Mila’s routine visits: “You hold your breath.” But today their daughter is healthy and thriving.
Recently her doctors lengthened the time between checks from four to three times a year, and that is excellent news.
Mila has been accepted into the Emery Weiner Middle School, a private school her brother Beau attends. According to Don, he and Nikki had bought her an Emery Weiner hoodie in her size so she could support her brother; next year she will don the hoodie as a student.
Don says his family has been through a lot, but they have so much to be grateful for: a supportive community of friends, nurses, doctors, and teachers.
Each Valentine’s Day Mila makes home-made cards for her friends, and teachers past and present. Don lugs the big box of Valentines into the school and helps her distribute them. This year they visited Mila’s former teachers Ms. Erwin, Ms. O’Dell, Ms. McLamb, and Ms. Levy, as well as her current teacher Ms. Miller.
Today Mila is disease-free, and melanoma research initiatives are bringing people like Mila closer to a cure. Don is feeling on top of the world again, and hopeful: “Life is good.”