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Robin Roberts: 'I'm Stronger Than I Thought I Was"

PARADE Published: March 31, 2013
quo; Robin, the baby of the family, admits that her sister is right. “I want to be the giver,” she says. “It’s been very hard for me but very enlightening to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end.”

Sally-Ann injected herself for five days with a drug to induce the production of stem cells. She stresses that she had no side effects and adds, “I am terribly afraid of needles, but it wasn’t a problem.” She then gave blood at Sloan-Kettering in New York, where Robin was being treated; that night, the sisters got word that their mother was on her deathbed. (Their father, Lawrence Roberts, a retired air force colonel and a pilot with the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2004.) “I believe Mom held on until she was sure that Robin had what she needed,” Sally-Ann says. They flew home to Pass Christian, Miss., and arrived in time to say goodbye.

In June 2012 with her 10 out of 10 match, Sally-Ann.
Roberts’s doctors feared that her grief might jeopardize her medical battle. “It was ripping her apart,” says Dr. Roboz. “We were extremely worried about her psychologically.” Roberts says the two doctors comforted her by saying, “Now you don’t have to worry about your mother, and she doesn’t have to worry about you.” The next stage of her treatment, chemo­therapy, left the anchor and lifelong athlete weak and exhausted. During the transplant, she was touched when Dr. Giralt not only cried—“That’s how much he cares about his patients”—but prayed as well. “I love a doctor who can respect that there’s somebody else on your team, and that’s God,” she says.

Sawyer and GMA weatherman Sam Champion were with her when she had the transplant. “I was being given life, and they were there,” she says. “People call them colleagues, and I’m like, ‘Colleagues don’t come to your room when you’re about to be reborn. These are the people that you love, who are close to you.’ They’re family to me.”

Champion and GMA coanchor Josh Elliott got permission to visit Roberts in the hospital “at a point when seeing her required two big scrub-downs and putting on protective gloves and masks,” recalls Elliott. Their get-well gifts included shaggy green slippers with frog faces. “Little did I know when I put on those froggy slippers that they would take on a life of their own,” says Roberts, whose friends then bought them in solidarity. “Oprah still wears them. Come on, you’re wearing frogs on your feet! How can you be in a bad mood?”

Wearing the “froggy slippers” that Champion, left, and Elliott gave her in the hospital.
Once back in her apartment, Roberts lived in a sterile cocoon—her Jack Russell terrier, K. J. (Killer Jack), stayed with friends for months—and she had a morning ritual of counting the days. “First thing, I’d get out of bed, cross the room, and put the new day on the calendar with a marker,” she says. “If you can get to 100 days, you’re probably going to be okay—though it doesn’t mean you won’t have complications.” The relief is still tangible in her voice as she recalls going in for tests and hearing her doctors say, “You have no abnormalities.” “I was like, ‘Say that again?’”

Roberts is doing well, but recurrences are not unusual with MDS, so she is helping her cause by participating in clinical trials. “We’re all anxious for this to be in the rear-view mirror,” says Dr. Roboz, “but we’re not there yet.” The anchor’s eyesight remains blurry, making it hard for her to read the teleprompter. “I don’t panic,” she says. “I just have to give [my coanchors] a look and they’ll start talking; they’ve got my back.” She is susceptible to colds and infections and has been told to avoid handshakes and kisses, but she seems to crave human contact, rushing outside on her first day back at GMA to elbow-bump fans. Dr. Giralt has sent her emails urging her to be careful, though as he confides philosophically, “You could put her in a bubble and wrap her in Saran wrap, but this is who she is. This is part of her healing.”

Ask how her experience has changed her and Roberts says, “I’m stronger than I thought I was. My favorite phrase has been ‘This too shall pass.’ I now understand it really well.” To fight her fears, she practices yoga and visualization. “When I close my eyes, my happy place is Key West, coffee in hand, sunrise over the pier,” she says. “I can visualize that in the studio, and it has helped calm me.” She no longer feels that productivity means booking every hour of her day months in advance. “I don’t want to plan. In a year’s time I want to still be able to say to you, I am in the moment.”

In being extraordinarily open about her illness, Roberts aims to make people more aware of MDS and the need for bone marrow donors for many diseases. Barry Huff, a senior vice president of the activist organization Be the Match, says that the anchor’s candor has sparked an impressive response: 56,000 people signed up to be potential donors after Roberts announced her diagnosis.

Nevertheless, being the center of attention has been uncomfortable for a journalist used to the other side of the microphone. The night before returning to GMA, Roberts spent an hour on the phone with Josh Elliott, bracing for the spotlight. He told her, “You have to let that love cascade over you.” Her sisters gave her similar advice. “They said, ‘Take your hands off the wheel. Allow yourself to be loved,’” Roberts says. “It was very difficult, but it brought people joy to bring me joy.”

Roberts has struggled with a few “why me?” moments, but she takes solace in the knowledge that her experience has helped others. “I feel now more than ever that my life has purpose,” she says. “I think that I am being used for light and love and resilience. For whatever reason, I’m able to touch people, and I’m so grateful for that.”

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