A parent's worst, continuing nightmare

Special to the Times

All parents are acutely familiar with the underlying fear we feel when expecting a child. We find ourselves hoping that our child will be born whole and healthy.

Not a day goes by throughout the entire nine months that you don't say a silent prayer -- until the blessed event finally takes place.

Ed and Rebecca Rowland of Fort Morgan were no different. In fact, even more so, since Rebecca's pregnancy came later in life, at 40 years old, when risks of complications are high.

They did all the right things. Rebecca began seeing her family physician, Dr. Margaret Palu, early on, and all the proper tests were conducted -- from amniocentesis to check for chromosomal abnormalities of the fetus, to frequent ultrasounds throughout her pregnancy. To their great relief, all the tests came out fine.

On Jan. 9, 2002, Pamela Rowland was born. Healthy and active, baby Pamela had fair skin, blue eyes and lots of white blonde hair. The Rowlands were elated.

Tragedy strikes

It wasn't until Pamela's six-week checkup that problems began to appear. Her eyes continually moved back and forth, and she was diagnosed with nystagmus, a condition of near blindness caused by oculacutaneous albinism. It was then they noticed the pigment in the iris of her young eyes turned nearly pink when exposed to light.

Albinism is an extremely rare condition, they soon learned, and that both parents had to have the gene -- a gene which doesn't show up in normal tests. The odds were one in 100,000 that it would occur, and they were told they could have had four or five other children without any problems such as this.

Sadly, that was only the beginning. In early March it was discovered that Pamela had a herniated belly button, requiring surgery at Children's Hospital in Denver. The surgery went well, but although they didn't know it at the time, it would be the first of many trips to that faraway hospital.

Aside from Pamela's eyes and extreme sensitivity to light, the baby acted healthy and alert -- a comparatively normal child. Then on Monday, Aug. 12, tragedy struck.

It was Rebecca's day off, and she and Pamela were playing. "Suddenly, she became agitated, so I gave her a bath at about 9 a.m. and put her down for a nap. An hour later, she started screaming, so I picked her up. I was holding her as usual," Rebecca tearfully recalls. "Rocking her back and forth in my arms. Something she usually liked, but this time she was obviously in terrible pain, even if I just nudged her little arm. All of the sudden, her left side went stiff and her head went down against her chest like a stroke victim's."

They rushed her to their physician, but by the next day Pamela's body was totally limp. They soon discovered their seven-month-old baby was paralyzed from the neck down.

On Aug. 16, she was airlifted back to Children's Hospital in Denver for a variety of tests. The next day an MRI was performed, which showed herniated blood vessels along the upper spine. The mass was pressing against her spinal cord, and she needed surgery as soon as possible.

The surgery removed a mass of abnormal blood vessels that had crushed against her spinal cord, requiring repairs along her vertebrae from C-5 to T-7 -- her entire upper back.

To make matters worse, Pamela's vitals were steadily dropping because when the blood vessels burst, they affected the blood supply to her lungs, causing her to fight for each breath by using the muscles in her stomach.

"We were blessed," says Rebecca. "The surgeon who worked on Pamela, Dr. Michael Handler, was the same surgeon who had recently led the team which separated the Siamese twins in Denver."

But the family's ordeal was far from over. After the extensive operation, Pamela was in intensive care for six days with Rebecca never leaving her daughter's side. "They have parents' rooms at the hospital," she says, "but I just couldn't leave her." Instead, Rebecca spent 24 hours a day in an uncomfortable chair just inches from Pamela's bed, dozing only sporadically.

Ed was forced to work through much of the ordeal since it had become apparent early on that Rebecca's health insurance from her job as gatekeeper for the Morgan County landfill wouldn't come close to paying for everything.

"I was told that no matter how much insurance I had, it wouldn't cover all that was happening or about to happen," Rebecca says. "Ed forced himself to work, hauling molasses to feedlots in the area for Midwest PMS, coming down as soon as he could on weekends."

From ICU, little Pamela and her parents then had to endure an intensive and painful regimen of physical therapy at Children's -- a continuing effort to help Pamela regain use of the muscles around her lungs which were severely damaged when she was unable to use them due to her spinal injuries. Little Pamela, now less than eight months old, was kept at Children's until Sept. 5 with Rebecca continuing to remain right by her side.

Even now that Pamela is back home, she still has a very difficult time breathing. "It's like she's gasping for air all the time," says her aunt, Linda Young. "She has to use the lower portion of her diaphragm and lungs because the other muscles still aren't working properly. It's exhausting for her."

So exhausting that little bright-eyed Pamela must spend a large portion of her days -- and every night -- in a small portable artificial lung reminiscent of the iron lungs of old. She must also be attached to an oxygen machine 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The doctors hope that within six months or a year she'll be able to breathe on her own," says Rebecca. "But as with all things spinal, they just don't know."

Medical prognoses are even more complicated by Pamela's albinism. "It's such a rare occurrence," says Ed, "that we're all learning about it every day, even the physicians."

Financial, emotional drain

To say that Pamela's problems are an emotional and financial drain on the family would be a gross understatement. She still must receive physical and occupational therapy on an ongoing basis, and the family must learn to help Pamela deal with her virtual blindness.

"The Eastern Colorado Services for the Disabled come to our home to provide the physical and occupational therapy," says Rebecca. "In addition to helping her muscles regain their strength, they also help her with things like eating and check on her development progress."

Each night when Pamela must lie alone in her tiny portable lung, she also must wear braces on her hands and wrists to help prevent further injury.

"The Anchor Center for the Blind out of Denver also comes out every three months," says Rebecca. "They try to teach us how to teach Pamela how to learn, to overcome the problems with her eyes."

It takes a community

Throughout this entire ordeal, friends and family of the Rowlands in Morgan County rallied in support. As long-time volunteers in 4-H shooting sports projects, both Ed and Rebecca soon found themselves on the receiving end of the kind of selfless giving-back to the community they have both practiced for years.

"It's a strange feeling to be on the other end," says Rebecca. "People in the area have just been wonderful."

One of the family's most welcome angels of mercy is Michelle Christensen, a fellow 4-H volunteer and mother of five children of her own. "Michelle has been a God-send," says Rebecca. "When she learned that one of our biggest problems was child care, to enable both Ed and I to work, she quickly agreed to help."

Michelle, who home schools her children at the family's farm not far from where Rebecca works, began by saying, "You need someone like me who stays home all day." Soon realizing she meant not just someone like her, but her, "My husband, Curt, and I talked about it, and here we are. My kids love to be around Pamela, too."

In addition, the Rowlands have received help from Rebecca's family, including her father, Roland "Swede" Young, and her sisters, Kathy, Jeannie and Linda.

"My son, Roland, has also been wonderful," Rebecca says. "When we found out Pamela was going to airlifted to Children's Hospital, Roland jumped in his car to be there when the helicopter landed."

Son Roland, an 18-year-old student at Morgan Community College who wants to be a physician later in life, also brought something totally unexpected to the situation. Curiously, back in high school, Roland had done a report on a special type of albinism for one of his classes.

"He had his laptop computer with him at the hospital," Rebecca says, "and after Pamela's operation all the doctors gathered around him to read it. Since it's so rare, they were very interested in what he'd learned."

Pamela Rowland Fund

Rebecca's youngest sister, Linda Young, has also been of great help, especially when it comes to helping gather the sorely needed funds to keep the family afloat during this ongoing crisis. She recently set up a fund at Farmers State Bank in Fort Morgan to allow for donations from the community.

"All the tellers and managers at the bank know about it," she says. "People can just walk in and ask about the Pamela Rowland Medical Fund. They'll be doing something wonderful for my niece and her family."

Linda will also hold a garage sale at 816 Meeker St. this weekend with all proceeds going to the Rowland family.

"I'm also working on setting up a Cajun boil with Donny Edson," Linda says. It will be held in mid-November and include a benefit auction of items she plans to solicit from local business owners. "We haven't set an exact date yet, but I'll make sure the word gets out."

The Rowlands have also been contacted by the ever-helpful Shriners, the same group who helped their son, Roland, with problems involving his legs and feet when he was growing up. And this loving family and their valiant little daughter, Pamela, can use all the help they can get right now, even though they are reticent about asking for it.

Community support for those in need is a long and honored tradition in Morgan County and the surrounding area. More information about how you can help can be obtained by calling Linda Young at 867-3282. "Leave a message if I'm not home," she says. "I promise I'll get right back to you."



"It was once written "To thine own self be true". But how do we know who we really are? Every man must confront the monster within himself, if he is ever to find peace without. .." Outer Limits(Monster)