14-year-old Robert Clancy was in SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital re-learning how to walk after undergoing a series of surgeries to treat an advanced stage of ulcerative colitis. Today, he is the picture of health, sinking three-pointers like a pro in a recent Diocesan basketball tournament in O’Fallon, Ill. “I didn’t play much, but I scored a few three-pointers,” says Robert. “It felt good to play.”
Robert has traveled a long road to get back to health. Originally in St. Louis just to visit family over the Christmas holiday, the Clancys had planned to return to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where Robert’s father served as a master sergeant in the Contingency Readiness Unit. On Christmas Eve, however, Robert doubled over in pain.
“He was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in Germany and had been hospitalized several times before,” says Robert’s mother, Lisa. “We thought it had flared up again.”
Robert was referred almost immediately to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon where a review of his previous history and a series of additional tests ruled out Crohn’s Disease. The doctors realized that Robert’s condition was due to a related and sometimes very serious condition called ulcerative colitis. “In patients with inflammatory bowel disease, the body’s immune system attacks important protective aspects of the intestinal tract, including healthy bacteria and the cells that line the intestine. When this occurs, the result is intense inflammation, ulcers and infection” says Jose Greenspon, M.D., a pediatric surgeon at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. “Ulcerative colitis impacts the colon and rectum specifically.”
In Robert’s case, his colon was so inflamed and filled with ulcers that he needed immediate surgery, which included the removal of 95 percent of his colon initially. Three additional minimally invasive, laparoscopic surgeries then had to be done over the next few months to reconstruct his intestinal tract.”
Complicating matters was the planned return trip to the family’s home in Germany. Robert, in intensive care, was unable to go home. He and his mother remained in St. Louis. His father, on active duty service, had to return to Germany, bringing with him Robert’s younger brother Ryan, who had to go back to school. The separation was hard on everyone. “We talked and emailed every day,” says Ryan, recalling the months apart with tears in his eyes.
Robert’s father immediately put in for a transfer to Scott Air Force Base in O’Fallon, Ill. The first request was denied. Undeterred, the family began gathering documentation that would support the requested transfer. One of the documents was a letter from Dr. Greenspon.
“I tried to explain that Robert would need extensive therapy and ongoing medical treatment,” he says. “The family needed to be together.”
The family was optimistic until the unexpected government sequester froze any discussion of transfers. From January until April, the family remained separated and Robert went in and out of the hospital for ongoing complications and care. Through it all, Dr. Greenspon was there, often stopping in the wee hours of the morning to check on his young patient. “I remember one time when Dr. Greenspon came out to the hallway and put his hand on my arm and said, ‘I will take care of your son,’” says Lisa Clancy.
“I can’t describe the feeling that came over me, but I immediately knew I had total faith in God and complete trust in Dr. Greenspon.”
Finally, in May, the family got the news it desperately wanted—Robert Clancy Senior’s transfer was approved. “The Air Force has been wonderful in meeting our needs and doing everything possible to keep us together as a family,” he says.
“They could have told me to finish my tour of duty in Germany or they could have sent us to another city. I think the letter from Dr. Greenspon about the importance of consistent, ongoing care was integral in getting my orders approved.”
Robert has regained much of the 30 pounds he lost while in the hospital and is back attending school with his brother at St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon. Even though he’s healthy now, Robert and Dr. Greenspon have developed a special relationship that lingers today.
“I think he’s amazing,” Robert says. “He’s probably the best surgeon in the world. To me he’s one of my greatest idols and heroes, and he’s my friend.”
“The medical professionals of the United States Air Force supported my husband’s reassignment request because they also felt strongly that our son could get the BEST care in the world at Cardinal Glennon,” she says. “That is one of the most inspiring parts of Robert’s story, that both the Air Force and the surgeons at Cardinal Glennon worked so hard to reunite us so that my son could get well.”