Losing A Child To Cancer

Mar 5, 2020

John Ulrich’s daughter Robyn was diagnosed with leukemia at age 19. She was treated at the Ohio State University James Comprehensive Cancer Center, where the family met Cathy Disher, a critical care chaplain for the hospital.

Disher became fast friends with the family while spiritually supporting them through Robyn’s sickness and eventual passing. Ulrich and Disher spoke of their memories of Robyn at the StoryCorps booth when it was in Columbus last summer.

Disher remembers first learning about Robyn from Ulrich’s wife, Becky, during her visits at the ICU as a critical care staff chaplin. “She spoke about Robyn being so full of life, optimism, a wonderful friend to her friends, a passionate dancer,” Disher said.

“Would you share more with me about Robyn? What was she like growing up?” she asked Ulrich.

Ulrich remembers the challenges that came with being father to a teenager, especially with how determined Robyn was to pursue her goals. “She was just incredibly energetic and very, very vivacious,” he said. “She loved to dance, her soul was very much in that.”

He told Disher that Robyn was, “very much a typical young lady trying to grow up and find herself and become who she was going to become.”

The fact that Robyn was just starting her life as an independent young adult made the discovery of her cancer that much more shocking.

“Where were you when you first heard of Robyn’s cancer diagnosis?” Disher asked. “Can you take us back there, can you take me back there to that October of 2015?”

Ulrich remembers the exact moment he received word of Robyn’s diagnosis - October 8, at 2:50 p.m. It was one day after his oldest son’s Christopher’s birthday, and Ulrich was at his desk grading papers when his wife called.

She asked him, “Are you sitting?” When he replied that he was, she responded, “Robyn has leukemia.”

Two days later, Robyn was admitted to The James and prepared for chemotherapy. One day during that first week, Disher arrived to provide spiritual counsel for the family.

“I just got the sense of somebody who was very centered and calm and loving and not putting anymore burden on anybody at a time when we so needed that," Ulrich remembered.

Ulrich noted that in Disher comforted his wife in particular.

“We developed quite a sisterly relationship,” Disher said. “So much so that I specifically remember the day that she said, ‘Cathy do not lie to me. Tell me what you see.’” 

It was difficult to process what was happening at the time, Ulrich admitted. “That battle that goes back and forth between the heart and the mind when it’s your own child is very intense… but I also knew in my mind that these were very long odds,” he says.

Robyn died on December 10, 2015, at 3:15 a.m. It was her 60th day in the ICU, and she died not from the cancer but from an allergic reaction to the medicine.

“The term I heard the doctors use is that she became acellular,” he said.

Robyn’s allergic reaction to the medication cytarabine meant that her immune system did not recover. She suffered from double pneumonia, followed by liver and kidney failure.

“She had a will to live, that girl wanted to live, she wanted to walk out the other side,” Ulrich said. “I think in my heart of hearts, she gave every last ounce of her energy and her soul and she won, she beat it."

"So from that standpoint, she won the battle, even though she lost the fight," Ulrich said.

Meeting Robyn inspired Disher to ride in Pelotonia, the annual bicycle tour that raises funds for cancer research – the next year. This past year, Disher and Ulrich decided to ride together, and both successfully completed the 45-mile event.

Disher has already committed to riding again in the 100-mile ride from Columbus to Gambier, Ohio.

John Ulrich and Cathy Disher were recorded in the StoryCorps booth during its recent trip to Columbus. 

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