ST. PETERSBURG — At All Children's Hospital, on the second floor, Rachel Robinson faces a set of double doors. No matter how many times she does this, it always feels final.
The doors lead to a place she can't go. A place in the cold hospital hallway where she has to let go of her only daughter's hand. Where tiny Chloe, 4 years old and strapped to a gurney, slips off to surgery.
One morning this week, the doors closed just after 9 a.m.
The mother's knees buckle on the linoleum. For the first time all day, she lets herself cry.
Robinson is 34, a bartender at Chili's. She wears an armband tattoo, a reminder of her commitment to her family. She still has a mean streak, and the fear awakens it. She lashes out at nurses and at her hovering husband, Ranaldo.
Has it been 45 minutes? They said they'd come out in 45 minutes with an update.
This is the third surgery — the first was when Chloe was only 6 weeks old — but they keep getting harder, and longer, and riskier. This time, doctors warned, there is a greater chance — 60 percent — that Chloe will die on the operating table.
Another surgery is the only option. Chemo fuels the tumors. A rare disease infests her body with dozens of serpentine tumors that slither around vital organs — her stomach, her spine, her heart.
Today doctors are removing only one, in the base of her brain. There are 51 others.
It's been 90 minutes. Robinson wants to storm the doors. Then they open. The doctor's face is grim. There are complications. The tumor was longer, lower than they thought. Chloe's fever is spiking. It will be a few more hours.
She'll beat the odds, her mother tells herself. The little girl who loves trucks and shoes and belting out Hannah Montana tunes has got her red-haired mother's fight, a toughness tested daily by two older brothers. When the doctors told her she was terminal at age 2, she took one look at her mother's tears and set her straight.
"Mom, we're big girls," she said. "We don't cry."
The minutes drip by. Robinson paces. She can't think right now about her sons, 13 and 10, back at home in Winter Haven. Not about the construction job her husband lost a few weeks ago. Not about the more than $1 million in hospital bills she has no health insurance to pay.
Another hour. Two.
Was surgery the right choice? She spent months struggling with that question. It was the only option. There was no choice.
She imagines that she could crawl up in her daughter's hospital bed, stroke her nest of black curly hair, hold close the sick, scarred body in the Looney Tunes gown. Mama's here. Everything will be all right.
It's in God's hands, she tells herself. It took months for doctors to give a name to the disease stalking her daughter: aggressive neurofibromatosis.
It's been four hours. The doctors are back.
They take the Robinsons to something called a consultation room. They tell them they drilled a hole in Chloe's face. Plugged it with fat from her stomach. The tumor was 13.9 centimeters. There's still a risk Chloe could die from infection.
The mother doesn't hear every word, doesn't compute all the medical jargon.
She can think of only one thing.
"Take me to my baby girl."
Lisa Falkenberg is a Houston writer visiting St. Petersburg. She re-created this scene from interviews with the Robinsons at the hospital.