Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The devoted

Tanya pulls out a scrapbook with pictures from the past year. Smiling faces of two teenagers in love peer back from the pages. She and her boyfriend, Ramade, are hugging and smiling at Busch Gardens, King Richard’s, from photo booths and swimming pools.

Looking through, you would never know that Ramade has spent nearly half of the past 15 months in the hospital and almost died twice.

Ramade Robles, 19, or Rome to those who know him best, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in January 2008. It was one month after he and Tanya started dating.

“He gave me the option of leaving,” said Tanya Lyristakis, 20, a computer science student at Florida Gulf Coast University. “But, I asked ‘why would I do that?’ ”

Tanya has taken it in stride. The hardest time for them came in December when Rome was sent to the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville for acute pancreatitis, a problem caused by his chemotherapy treatment. Rome was put into an induced coma for two weeks so his body would heal.

“A nurse told me to prepare for the worst,” Tanya’s voice shakes as she remembers. Doctors told her he had a 13 percent chance of surviving. She called his family members so they could come say goodbye.

It has been a tough road. But, in many ways, not as difficult as the road he walked before being diagnosed.

Rome is the youngest of seven but has been in and out of foster care, sold drugs on the streets in Tampa at age 16, has been arrested on more than one occasion and has little family support.

Before being diagnosed, he was cleaning up his life. He landed a job at UPS, where he met Tanya.

For Rome, the physical pain he has gone through since his diagnosis is more manageable than his lifetime of emotional pain.

But the past is not what concerns them now.

Rome started attending a weekly support group on Wednesdays at Cancer Alliance of Naples. Tanya goes with him.

“It helps to know there are other people out there who have an understanding,” Rome said. Talking to people who are going through similar experiences makes him feel normal.

“He’s given hope and helped others to feel they are not alone, and they’ve done the same for him,” said Ellen Harris, a licensed mental health counselor who facilitates the support group every week. “We are all amazed at his ability to have an upbeat attitude about life despite all the things he’s been through at a very early age.”

Harris said the devotion Rome and Tanya have for each other has been an inspiration to the group.

That devotion is what keeps Rome moving forward through his illness.

“I count my blessings that I can walk, hear, see and taste normally,” he said. “And of course, I’m lucky to have you,” he adds looking over at Tanya in their East Naples living room.

“I would have died if I didn’t have her.”