Simply a miracle
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 26, 2009 7:01 AM
Spencer Rollins, right, and his brother, Parker, play inside their family's home in Pikeville. But a year-and-a-half ago after his fourth heart surgery, doctors doubted Spencer, 4, would ever see -- or function like a normal child -- again.
Spencer and his mother, Katie, work on a book filled with pictures and stickers. Katie said her faith -- and the support of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro and Wayne County communities, carried the family through during tough times.
Spencer laughs when Katie tickles him in the spot doctors have opened up four times since his birth. His father, Andy, calls his son's story a miracle.
Eighteen months ago, Andy and Katie Rollins weren't sure their son, Spencer, would ever make it home.
His 2-year-old body wasn't responding well to the fourth open-heart surgery it had endured since birth.
And even if he lived through the recovery, doctors seemed certain he would grow up blind -- that his brain would never function like that of a healthy child.
So, when that same little boy pulled back a spring-loaded plane and fired it toward the ceiling Tuesday evening, he didn't understand the real reason why his parents looked on with wonder.
In his mind, he had impressed them by nearly reaching their home's second floor with his toy.
But in reality, they still can't believe just how far he has come.
So this Thanksgiving, the Rollins family won't have to dig too deep to think of the good things that have come their way this past year.
The truth is, they reflect on them every day.
"Spencer, what are you?" Katie asked, before the boy switched gears from toys to a picture book. "You're a ..."
"Miracle," he said.
Katie looked at him and smiled.
"You're a miracle. That's right," she said. "You're God's miracle. That's how we explain it."
It started with a 3-day-old who didn't seem to be breathing right.
Andy and Katie were concerned, so much so that they rushed Spencer to a hospital in Idaho -- their home state at the time.
But even then, the couple had no idea that within hours, their son would be diagnosed with a heart defect -- that as an 8-day-old doctors would open up his chest; that two more surgeries meant to modify the half-a-heart Spencer was born with would follow.
By the time the last of the three procedures was to take place, Andy had been assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing.
He looked forward to his new assignment: Teaching the next generation of aviators to command the F-15E Strike Eagle as a member of the 333rd Fighter Squadron.
But more importantly, he knew his new base was close to Duke Hospital -- the place where his little boy would ultimately have his "final" childhood surgery.
May 5, 2008, was supposed to mark the end of Spencer's battle.
But shortly after the procedure, one of his heart valves failed and he was rushed back into the operating room.
Katie and Andy maintained a vigil at his bedside for the next several weeks -- weeks he spent on a ventilator with kidney, lung and liver problems.
The boy had also suffered significant brain damage, they were told.
"I think the most difficult thing for Katie and I is that we can't do anything for him," Andy said at the time. "If I could, I would cut my heart open and give it to him. I would give him anything he needs -- a new kidney, a new brain, whatever -- but they won't fit. So all I can do is sit here and watch."
Back at Seymour Johnson -- and in the communities that surround it -- news of Spencer's condition was spreading.
So while Andy and Katie kept watch over him, members of the 333rd and the local Military Affairs Commission raised thousands of dollars for a boy many had never met, chasing a hope that with enough love and support, he and his parents would pull through.
Spencer's parents know their son's journey is far from over.
It was only six weeks ago that he proved to doctors he had vision in both eyes.
"He was basically blind in his right eye," Katie said. "They said, 'This is stroke-related.' ... They said, 'It happens. Babe Ruth only had one good eye.'"
And years from now, the pig valve connected to his heart will have to be replaced.
So the Rollins still count their blessings every day -- even though their little boy is now home and healthy.
"Every day is a reminder just that he's alive, and not only is he still alive, he doesn't have a walker, he doesn't have hearing aides, he doesn't have glasses," Andy said. "So we're just reveling in it right now. It sounds cheesy, but we actually don't think too much about tomorrow."
Their thoughts, instead, are on their "miracle" -- and the military base and town that wrapped their arms around them during much harder times.
"People know him. We don't necessarily know all the people who supported him, but we go different places and people see Spencer and will say, 'Oh, I finally get to meet Spencer,'" Andy said.
"It's so cool to be a part of it. It's so cool that we can share his story," Katie added. "It's so much bigger than us and doctors."
So for this particular family, Thanksgiving Day simply provides another opportunity to remember just that.
All thanks to a little boy who kept fighting.
"I think what every mom wants for their kids is basically, you want them to be a world changer. You want them to do something big. You just want them to make an impact," Katie said. "It's so cool that he's only 4 years old, and judging from the response we've gotten from the community, he's already changed so many people. So I can't really ask for more."
"What do you hope for him? You hope for this," Andy said, watching Spencer run back to that spring-loaded plane. "You learn never to take this -- him walking around the room -- for granted. That's the hardest thing to explain to other parents, too. Don't take that time for granted. Don't just put them in front of a TV and walk away. The time we have with (your children) ... you can't put a price on it."