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A father and a doctor reflect on the life of a teenager cut short by cancer

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. When Robert Robinson's daughter Angel started rapidly losing weight, doctors misdiagnosed it as an eating disorder. During a visit to the hospital and on-call doctor discovered a rare tumor in Angel's stomach. That physician, John Fortunato, would stay with the family through Angel's treatment up until Angel's death last year. Recently, at StoryCorps in Chicago, he sat down with Angel's father for this conversation.

JOHN FORTUNATO: My first memory of meeting Angel was in the hospital. When I walked in the room, Angel was smiling the whole time - a teenager who was in control of the room. And I remember she told me to push her on her belly, and I could make her throw up. After I diagnosed Angel with the tumor, what was your first response to that?

ROBERT ROBINSON: Before you discovered it, no one would listen to her, even me. And I still regret that. But I didn't know. They were saying it was an eating disorder. And when you go to the doctor, you trusting the professionals. You just, OK, that's what the doctor said; that's what it is. So I'm kind of trying to push her, you know what I mean?

FORTUNATO: Yeah.

ROBINSON: And it's not her fault.

FORTUNATO: Parents, myself included, don't always see things clearly, especially as it relates to teenagers. But that doesn't mean a parent's doing something wrong. I - you never tell someone not to feel guilty because that's not a fair expectation. But we just do the best we can to support and love our kids. And that's something that amazed me, you being a single father of twins and somehow spending an incredible amount of time and energy with both your daughters.

ROBINSON: Nothing else mattered to me but my kids. We couldn't rely on anybody but each other. It was an us-against-the-world type of situation that I feel made her stronger mentally 'cause it's - lot of times, I wanted to be like, well, if you going to die anyway, forget doing this chemo. You keep your hair. And she would - no, we don't give up. I'm going to keep fighting.

FORTUNATO: I wasn't ready to give up either, but I realized, you know, after a while, it was a just almost impossible situation.

ROBINSON: When Angel died, I just remember standing over trying to talk to her, and her eyes was open, but she wasn't responsive. And her sister was singing to her, and her heart rate was dropping. It was going from 180, it went down to 140. From 140, it went down to 80. From 80, it down to 40. And it was over.

FORTUNATO: She reminded me kind of what I got into this career to begin with for. And that's the only regret, is I wish I could have told her what her impact was.

ROBINSON: And I really appreciate those times. Everyone was saying, it's a wrap. You know what I mean? For you to still be there and be like, no, there's still stuff you can do. You ain't got to blow the trumpet just yet. When - a time where it wasn't any hope, that really lifted us up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Robert Robinson and Dr. John Fortunato. Angel, who preferred they/them pronouns, had a final wish - that their story would help other patients be heard when seeking treatment. This conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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