The smile — broad and constant — hasn't changed. You wonder how, and this is Anthony Robinson's response: "I tell everyone, 'If I die tomorrow, don't be sad. I've had all these years.' "
He had the same attitude the first time we heard his name in 1985, when, as a fifth-grader at Lacoochee Elementary School, he battled acute myeloid leukemia. Even after morning blasts of chemotherapy at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Anthony would return to class in the afternoon, lay his head on his desk and do math problems.
He inspired his teacher, Anita Mullins, who called Anthony her "miracle kid.''
He beat the cancer.
If only the story had stopped there.
The medications Anthony took damaged his heart. By mid-afternoon on May 13, 1988, his condition had deteriorated to a critical point as he waited for a transplant at Shands hospital in Gainesville. His mother, Joanne Bloodsworth, wrote his obituary. At 8:20 p.m., hospital officials told her they had found a donor, a child who had drowned. On May 14, the day before Anthony Robinson turned 14, doctors sewed the new heart into his chest.
He recovered quickly and thrived. He kept a B average at Pasco High School, where the best football player ever to play in these parts acted as his bodyguard. Darren Hambrick, who led the school to a state championship in 1992, made sure nobody messed with him. Anthony served as the football team's manager. After school, he bagged groceries at Winn-Dixie, mopped floors and stocked shelves at Walmart.
Anthony briefly attended Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, but expenses drove him back home to Lacoochee, where his mom and siblings lived in the public housing project next to the elementary school. After working at the orange processing plant in Dade City, Anthony found a job he loved — monitoring, counseling and transporting teenagers detained at the Juvenile Detention Center.
He worked there a dozen years. The longtime superintendent, Eddie Roberts, admired and promoted him. "I never heard Officer Robinson complain,'' he said. "He was a role model.''
Anthony took great care of his transplanted heart. He didn't smoke or drink. He exercised regularly, mainly taking long walks around the Hillandale neighborhood east of Brooksville, where he lived with his fiancee, Tangela Forbes. On Thanksgiving 2007, he ate a big turkey dinner, and that evening he felt as if he had heartburn. When the discomfort did not go away, he went to a hospital emergency room and soon found himself in an ambulance speeding toward Shands hospital. Doctors stitched a pacemaker into his chest, a few inches left of the long vertical scar from the first heart surgery.
"It was no big deal,'' Anthony said. "Just like a car. The battery needed a charge. That was the first trouble I had since the transplant.''
But as is often the case with long-term transplant survivors, the anti-rejection drugs and other factors damaged Anthony's kidneys. He would eventually need a kidney transplant. And when he went into a clinic to get fitted for a stomach catheter for dialysis, doctors noticed a suspicious lump on his throat.
Thyroid cancer. More surgery. Radiation.
Anthony fell off the kidney transplant list, pending a full recovery from the cancer.
A year later, in 2009, his kidneys stopped working. But doctors pronounced him cancer-free, and he went back on the transplant list in Gainesville and Tampa.
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We sat on lawn furniture beneath an old oak tree on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in Brooksville last week. Anthony lives in a tiny house with his fiancee and others. A blue tarp covers a damaged roof. Anthony's 2007 Chevy Malibu sits in the carport.
He used to make decent money as a juvenile detention officer. Now he survives on Social Security disability checks. Medicaid pays for his treatments, including the dialysis machine that flushes his body 10 hours every day.
He worries somebody is going to come get his car because he's overdue on the $376 a month payments. He doesn't say how much.
"I've got to have a car,'' he said. "I go to Gainesville and Tampa every week.''
Typically, he sees a silver lining.
"At least I can hook up my dialysis machine to this port on my stomach,'' he says, pulling up his shirt. "Before, all they had were arm hookups, which meant you had to stay at the clinic for treatments. At least I get to stay home and have a normal life.''
A normal life.
He talks to his mother every day. He's grateful for two sisters who he says have promised him a kidney, if he gets that far. He has no idea where he might come up with the $5,000 he needs in advance of the transplant to ensure he has the post-operative medicine.
He's read all about survival rates of heart transplant patients: Only 16 percent live 20 years or more. He knows all about the Ohio man who lasted 31 years to set a record, before cancer took him in 2009.
Anthony Robinson, the "miracle kid'' from Lacoochee, isn't all that religious, but he believes God has kept him around for a reason.
"I'm not smart enough to know what that is,'' he said as we parted ways.
He offered another big smile and a final thought: "Live your life to the fullest, every day like it's the last.''