RANDALLSTOWN, Md. — The way Davidson’s Andrea Robinson tells it, she’s OK.
Her hair might be gone, having fallen out in clumps.
“I’ll rock this look,” says the sophomore forward, stroking her bald head. “At least I can feel the breeze.”
She has weathered two intensive chemo treatments requiring extended hospital stays. The first, continuous chemo, 24 hours a day for seven straight days, pumped into her system via a catheter in her chest. The catheter stays in between treatments.
“Wanna see?” she asks, offering to unzip her Wildcats windbreaker.
Diagnosed with leukemia two months ago, the 19-year-old who goes by “Dre” is preparing for a bone marrow transplant. While it’s only an hour-long procedure, stabilizing the body can take months. Because her blood count will drop dramatically, compromising her immune system, she will be at risk for infection or bleeding. Catching even a routine cold could set her back.
“I’ll be better June-ish,” Robinson guestimates. “Hopefully I’ll be cancer-free, and then it’ll be back to school. Back to basketball and, ‘Have I got a story to tell you guys!'”
It’s a story she can tell by cracking jokes while plucking at her new mandolin and teasing her 15-year-old brother, Dwayne, about his PlayStation addiction. It’s also a contrast to the harrowing reaction of her mother, Tara Bell, whom she constantly chides for her theatrics.
Before her daughter’s first bone marrow biopsy, Bell flinched at the sight of the oversized needle set to puncture Robinson’s back. “Breathe in, breathe out; deep, calming breaths,” she advised, unable to sit still.
“You’re the one stressing me out,” Robinson shot back. “There’s no point freaking out about stuff. That’s not going to solve anything.”
In fact, Robinson didn’t react when first told of the diagnosis, even though she was expecting it to be an orthopedic issue given her muscle pain. Instead, an hour and change after having her blood drawn, she listened as a doctor she had never met described concern from the preliminary results: white counts sky-high, platelets and hemoglobin disturbingly low. The numbers required a closer look under a microscope.
“Leukemia cells,” she remembers him saying.
Robinson responded, “OK.”
Davidson athletic trainer Brian Wheeler, who accompanied her to the appointment, swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’ve seen kids fall apart when they hear they’ve torn an ACL,” he said.
Instead Robinson’s mind raced at the speed it usually does, easy for the physics major who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes and remains excited to master the unicycle upstairs in her bedroom closet.
She first dialed up Davidson basketball coach Gayle Coats Fulks, who promptly set into motion a plan to fly Robinson’s parents to Charlotte, North Carolina, using the NCAA’s Student Athlete Opportunity Fund. Then it was time to call home, where Robinson knew she’d have to keep her mother off the ledge.
“Don’t go running down the highway,” she stressed. “They’re going to buy you guys a flight. Don’t start running. One, that’s weird.”
And two, “I’m OK.”
Bell was not. “I don’t process things the way she does,” she admits. Instead, Bell churns, prays, cringes and sometimes screams aloud, just as she did that mid-December evening when, holding the phone, she heard Andrea explain she had leukemia.
Bell sobbed and then fell down, a thud so loud Dwayne emerged from his room to find her on the hallway floor of the family’s suburban Baltimore home.
“Are you saying it’s cancer?” he shrieked, trying to decipher what she was saying.
Andrea waited on the line, preparing to leave the emergency room for a cancer center in Charlotte. They took her by ambulance.
“I Snapchatted the whole way,” she says.
Back home — for now
Robinson is taking a semester off from Davidson so she can be treated at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, among the largest cancer centers in the world, and a half-hour from where she grew up.
For now, she’s at home. As she tells her story, she relaxes her long, lean frame in her family’s living room surrounded by orange walls, coincidentally, the color for awareness, strength and support for leukemia.
Meanwhile, Bell has whipped out her laptop to show off highlights from an AAU game when Robinson starred for the Maryland Lady Terps. “She hit two 3s, back-to-back, swish!” Bell says.
“The second one was a 2,” Robinson corrects.
“Everybody in America was recruiting her; she had pounds, boxes and boxes of mail,” Bell says.
“Everybody gets mail,” Robinson says.
“She had a 4.2 in high school,” Bell starts.
“No, it wasn’t,” Robinson interrupts.
“Maybe a 3.8,” says Robinson, whose demeanor doesn’t change when the conversation returns to cancer.
“AML — Google it,” she suggests.
An internet search reveals that AML is short for Acute Myeloid Leukemia, blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow preventing cells from maturing the way they should. When leukemia develops, the bone marrow produces abnormal cells, which crowd out the healthy ones.
The treatment so individualized in approach that it’s almost impossible to predict one person’s odds versus another’s.
“You just follow along,” says Andrea’s father, Dwayne Robinson Sr. “You don’t get caught up in what others are saying or what the street doctors say. You just have to listen to the doctor and follow along with what they say and hope the diagnosis and treatment they come up with works.”
In Andrea’s case, the step-by-step plan started the evening she made that phone call from the emergency room right before she was scheduled to fly home for winter break. She would indeed be going back to Baltimore, but instead of chilling after exams, she’d be heading straight to the fifth floor of The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
This was not what she anticipated when nagging pain in her left hip began in early December.
Aleve seemed to help at first. When a similar pain affected her right hip, Wheeler suggested strengthening exercises. Then her left leg began to ache.
“It hurts, but I’ll keep going,” said Robinson, who began her sophomore season as a starter for a Davidson team that, in Coats Fulks’ first year as coach, surpassed last season’s win total on Jan. 7.
Heavily recruited out of McDonogh High, Robinson picked the private liberal arts college just 20 minutes north of Charlotte over several bigger schools, including Georgia Tech. As enticing as the ACC would be to most teenagers, Robinson marveled at Davidson’s academic reputation and preferred its small size. “I didn’t want to have to cross a street to go to class,” she said.
Robinson started the first six games, but after that, the pain made it difficult to even go through a layup line.
“At first, I was playing through it,” she says. “But it got to a point where I went to a practice and we had a lift after. I went to that lift and couldn’t move my body very well. It was so painful.”
She kept the details scant when talking to her parents, though Bell had her antenna up and was particularly worried when her daughter couldn’t shake congestion and ear pressure. “I was trying to stalk, but I was too far away,” she says.
Then during a nighttime chat with her dad, Robinson surprised herself. “My hip hurts,” she said. She realized she was crying.
“Andrea is not a crier,” says Bell, who passed her concern to Coats Fulks that something might be seriously wrong.
She sent her daughter a string of texts that Robinson recounts while trying not to laugh too hard: “‘You might have bronchitis; you might have pneumonia; you might have walking pneumonia,’ whatever that is. ‘You might have Lyme Disease; you might have picked up something when you were hiking. You might have gotten a spider bite when you killed that spider in your room a month ago. … ‘”
“You need to go to the ER,” was the last text from Bell, who readily admits her favorite book is “The Sky is Falling.”
“Everything’s fine,” Robinson insisted, though she agreed to see the team orthopedist and physician, appointments that couldn’t come fast enough.
X-rays revealed nothing — good news, she thought — and accompanied by Wheeler, she went to have her blood drawn. Routine, she thought. The two were returning to campus when Wheeler got the call that Robinson should head to the ER.
Coats Fulks took detailed notes when first meeting the 6-foot Robinson, who is not a true post, is more finesse than physical and benefits from the occasional reminder to rebound.
“Did you know one of her goals is to buy a harp?” the coach asks.
That would fit in with Robinson’s drum kit, trombone, mandolin and a didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians that fascinated Robinson the moment she saw a classmate playing one.
“I get inspired by people around me,” she says. “Another kid in my high school, his dad was a circus performer, and he started a juggling club. That’s where I learned how to juggle.”
Coats Fulks categorizes Robinson as that Davidson type of kid, well-rounded and systemic, much like the pedigree Tara VanDerveer coaches at Stanford. “She’s steady, not too high, not too low,” she said.
“I’m OK” is a phrase Robinson is apt to repeat whether talking about a skinned knee as a youngster, a frustrating physics class or an unexpected cancer diagnosis.
She doesn’t want a whole lot of details about what could go wrong these next few months. Even Bell is staying away from the internet. “I’m not Googling,” she says. “I’m a Google stalker expert, but I will not Google leukemia, because I am terrified. I am shaking.”
With a glance toward her daughter, Bell says, “She calms me down. Dwayne [Sr.], he’s terrified. I’m trying to calm him down. She calms us both down.”
Robinson’s new makeshift bedroom is off the living room. She’s a bit wobbly to navigate stairs, though relieved that the pain — from cancer cells that had invaded her spine — has subsided. Her double bed, next to a mini fridge, faces an oversized flat-screen TV.
“Why is that there?” she asks. “I never watch TV.”
Stuffed animals and gift baskets — gifts from her Davidson teammates and high school friends — are strewn on a nearby table where a plate with leftover egg casserole is pushed to the side.
“That’s good for you,” Bell reminds.
“Didn’t want it,” answers Robinson, trying to figure out how she will occupy her mind these next few months while her body prepares for an early April marrow transplant.
“Maybe I’ll take a refresher physics class online,” she says. “Or computer science.”
Though not at Davidson, Robinson remains very much a Wildcat. Davidson dedicated its Jan. 24 contest at UMass to her, a Play4Andrea game when even the opposing Minutewomen donned orange ribbons on their warm-up jerseys. Wildcats senior Mackenzie Latt wore Robinson’s No. 3 jersey and went off for a career-high 31 points in the double-overtime victory.
“When you have no more left in the tank, you think about Andrea and her fight and her spirit, day in and day out,” Latt says. “Nothing really rattles her, ever. I just felt that. I was trying to embody that spirit as best as I can, but nobody can do it like she can.”
The first 500 fans that night at Belk Arena received orange rally towels. Coats Fulks used her personal Twitter account to rally support for Andrea’s online support page, which exceeded its $25,000 goal in a few days. The money will go toward medical expenses.
Robinson isn’t overly active on social media, but she’s stunned by the number of retweets and shares on her behalf. She has read every message on her support page.
“My favorite ones are from fellow Wildcats and they’re like Class of 1950,” she says. “People will tell me I was a really positive influence in their life. I didn’t know I was touching anybody. What special thing did I do?”
Robinson is often on FaceTime with her teammates before and after the game. She can’t wait to be among them again, a day everyone in the Davidson community will celebrate.
“We have very, very big plans for her when she gets back,” Coats Fulks says. “The plan is for her to be back here and finish up her degree at Davidson and have whatever basketball career she can have, which I’m optimistic is a great one.”