Austin Roberts wins biggest battle

"I feel like it's made me thankful for my life," says Austin Roberts, who recently celebrated 10 years free of tumors. "I live every day to the fullest." Sean Gallagher/ESPNHS

When you watch Austin Roberts play -- setting up teammates, pumping her fists in celebration and charging around the court in pursuit of the volleyball -- it's easy to forget that there was a two-year period when she battled for her life nearly every day.

When you listen to Austin Roberts -- her enthusiasm, her charm and her obvious intelligence as evidenced by her straight-A average in high school -- it's easy to forget that she's had two brain tumors and two bouts with bacterial meningitis.

When you talk to her parents -- Carol and Dan, determined and dedicated -- you understand why they consider Austin their miracle child.

Roberts, a senior-to-be at All Saints Episcopal (Fort Worth, Texas), is a 5-foot-9 setter. She also sets for her club team, Tejas, and said her near-death experiences have had a positive effect on her outlook.

"I feel like it's made me thankful for my life," said Roberts, who was in and out of hospitals from ages 6 to 8. "I live every day to the fullest. And whenever a good opportunity comes my way, I realize that the Lord has blessed me in my walk."

Getting sick

Austin, 18, is the middle child of the Roberts' three children.

Her father, Dan, is a singer/songwriter who specializes in what he calls "Western swing and cowboy music," and he opened for Garth Brooks during his world tour from 1996 to 1998.

Her mom, Carol, is a nurse who works in leukemia research and has extensive experience with sick children.

Both of their professions proved to be life-savers for Austin.
Dan and Carol first noticed something was wrong with Austin in October of 2000. Dan had taken his daughter to get her Halloween costume, and she slept in the car ride home.

"Usually," Dan said, "kids are all excited to get home and try on their costumes."

Austin had also experienced some sensitivity to light and headaches, and when she was dehydrated a couple days later, the Roberts took her to a hospital.

Carol, more than familiar with hospital procedure, insisted that doctors performed an MRI, which is how her brain tumor was discovered.

"Carol is a very strong woman, and I give her credit for saving Austin's life," Dan said. "She's been a phenomenal advocate for Austin.

"In her gut, Carol knew something was wrong. She knew the science, and she knew the symptoms."

Surgery was performed on Nov. 3, and Austin was released from the hospital two weeks later.

But almost immediately after arriving home, she had a high fever and returned to the hospital. Doctors discovered an infection had caused bacterial meningitis, which is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.

"That was a harder and a more dangerous battle than the brain tumor," Carol said. "We almost lost her a number of times."

Austin, who was hospitalized nearly three months, finally came home just a few days before her 7th birthday.

But the fight for her life had only just begun.

Austin suffered a series of seizures, including one while she was playing soccer that lasted 45 minutes and nearly proved fatal. Doctors monitored Austin but said that the seizures were not totally abnormal for a person who recently had a brain tumor removed.

Carol, though, insisted that doctors performed another MRI, and in March of 2002, a second brain tumor was discovered.

Friends in high places

Dan said Austin's doctor, David Donahue, felt he could get the tumor, but there was a strong chance he would have to cut through the motor cortex, which could result in her inability to walk and talk again.

Donahue, though, said there was a new piece of technology, called an intraoperative MRI (iMRI) available in Boston and at UCLA that might be of great help to Austin.

That's where Dan's singing background entered the picture. During a gig in California, he had met Dr. Donald Becker.

When Dan mentioned his name, Donahue said Becker was the pioneer of the new technology.

Dan called Becker, who quickly agreed to take on the case. Just as important, Donahue agreed to give up a case for only the second time in his entire career.

"These neurosurgeons are the Michael Jordans of the medical world," Dan said. "They are the elite of the elite."

The Roberts flew out to Los Angeles, and Becker performed a nine-hour surgery. When he came out to talk to Dan and Carol, he informed them he wasn't sure if he had cut her motor cortex, which would have paralyzed the left side of her face and body.

The Roberts and Becker went to Austin's room and waited for the anesthesia to wear off. When she woke up, Becker asked her to wave her left hand.

"When she did, we collapsed into each other's arms," Dan said. "We were overjoyed, relieved -- all kinds of emotions."

Austin fought off a second bout of meningitis and has not had any issues since then. No radiation, chemotherapy or even any rehabilitation. This spring, she celebrated 10 years free of tumors. To mark the occasion, doctors have determined she no longer needs the brain scans that have been an annual part of her life since she left the hospital in 2002.

Fortunately for Austin, she said she doesn't recall much of the "bad stuff" she went through.

"I remember the good stuff," she said, "like playing cards in my hospital room. Everyone who came to visit had to play me in Uno. And not to sound boastful, but I usually beat them."

New challenges

Austin's big goal for the next year is to earn a college volleyball scholarship.

Amanda Watts, her high school coach this past year, said Austin is a "phenomenal athlete" with an intense love for her sport. She was named MVP of the Southwest Prep Conference South Zone after leading her team in assists with 8.8 per game.

"Her main strength is her effort," Watts said. "She hustles after every ball. If it's somewhere in the gym, she will go after it."

Watts describes Austin as an outgoing person, not afraid to ask questions, and said she would be a great fit at a smaller Division I program or at any of the lower levels.

"The college coaches I've spoken to love her," Watts said. "She's talented and willing to work hard. Coaches tell me they'd love to have a kid like that on their roster."