When Robin Wilkerson Thomas was growing up in Atlanta, she lived like the typical tomboy, spending whole summers swimming, sailing, water-skiing and camping by Lake Allatoona.
Robin’s love of the natural world and interest in science led her to pursue studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. “At college, I discovered both my career path and true love, Kent Thomas, and my best friend for more than 40 years,” she said.
After Kent helped her survive analytical chemistry class she figured they could handle any challenge together. They did not expect that someday the sickness of a son would change their lives forever.
In 1980, Robin married Kent and they settled in Chapel Hill. She worked as a research biologist at UNC and Kent pursued a career in environmental chemistry at Research Triangle Institute.
After giving birth to two boys, Ryan and Kevin, Robin decided to take a couple of years off from her career and was happy being a wife and mother. In 1991, the family’s life turned upside down when the couple’s 17-month-old son, Kevin, was feeling ill before a scheduled vacation. She thought Kevin had an urinary tract infection and took him to his pediatrician for a checkup. She said, “Within minutes of examining Kevin and taking a blood test, the doctor told me I needed to take Kevin immediately to the hospital.”
Kevin was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. At first, Robin and Kent felt they could handle this situation. “I was comfortable with all the shots and the tests, and Kevin, being a bright and independent toddler, learned the routine quickly.”
But within a couple of months, Robin knew something was wrong. Juggling food and activity with the correct amount of insulin was challenging. She said Kevin kept “crashing” with severe low blood glucose and began having hypoglycemic seizures. While the doctors and diabetes educators at the hospital wanted Kevin’s blood sugars to remain low/normal this strategy was not working.
After six painful months of watching their son’s lack of progress Robin and Kent fired their son’s diabetes team and took him to a different clinic. She said, “Kevin’s new endocrinologist was aghast at trying to keep a toddler’s blood glucose so low and told us that for the safety of our son, we needed to keep his blood sugars at a higher level to avoid brain injury.”
As it turned out Kevin’s brain damage showed up when he started school. He attended a local public elementary school and from the first day he struggled. Finally, Kevin’s second-grade teacher figured out that most of Kevin’s issues were around recall. He had huge difficulty with his short-term memory and would cry in frustration when asked to remember anything.
Robin notes, “He couldn’t even remember basic activities he loved. Kevin’s ability to remember any activity — even fun ones — just didn’t exist.”
Robin and Ken followed the American Diabetes Association diet counting carbs to insulin, and he had a trial period with Ritalin. When Kevin’s teacher saw increased depression and anxiety Robin took him off the drug.
“Despite Kevin’s uncomfortable symptoms he continued to be a loving, bright, and active child. He encouraged other children at the school who also had diabetes and learned how to take care of his own injections and frequent blood tests.
“When Kevin entered middle school he was confused by the class changes and got lost and frustrated. At home he was sobbing all night long.”
Robin and Ken took Kevin to a psychiatrist who prescribed a series of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications during the next seven years. After taking Paxil Kevin’s anxiety soared, and he became suicidal at age 11.
Robin and Kent pulled Kevin out of public school and began to home-school him. Robin said, “I was working in medical research so I headed to the lab at 4 a.m. and worked until lunchtime when I came home to relieve my husband, who then headed off to work until late in the evening. My son’s health declined significantly as side effects of the medications took their toll, including damage to the liver. But we didn’t give up.”
Kevin’s symptoms skyrocketed. Robin said, “He was unable to digest food, and his left brain was shutting down. He developed grand mal seizures. He was so anxious he wouldn’t leave his bedroom and didn’t want me to leave his side. Kevin’s panic attacks overwhelmed him and the whole family.”
Robin was struggling with responsibilities to her job and family so she left her research career in 2004 so she could take care of Kevin at home. She needed a way to earn money and discovered a company, USANA, that offers nutritional products.
At USANA conferences Robin began to learn about the gut/brain connection. When Kevin was 18, Robin took him to a USANA colleague whose expertise is functional neurology.
“That’s when we started changing our diet, first going gluten and dairy free and avoiding sugar as much as possible – except when needed for low blood sugar. We also added probiotics and digestive enzymes to help Kevin heal his gut.”
Through USANA Health Sciences, Robin met practitioners who were incorporating more holistic practices in their treatment of patients. “My eyes were opened to the possibilities for healing through a more natural way. Gradually we found ways to help Kevin through dietary changes, targeted supplementation, mold remediation and meditation,” she said.
Combining her scientific training with her deep desire to improve Kevin’s health, Robin became obsessed with understanding how food could be used as medicine and nourish mind, body and spirit. She slowly implemented healthy habits for the whole family. She learned a lot about the importance of healing the gut to promote overall health and improve the liver.
First Robin cleaned out her pantry and got rid of the foods that stress the gut: Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol and any processed and/or packaged foods.
She focused on preparing fiber and nutrient rich meals and snacks for her family including apples, bananas, berries, leafy greens and other vegetables. She also included foods that would heal the gut such as ginger, garlic and herbal teas.
She prepared fermented foods such as homemade cucumber pickles and sauerkraut to add probiotics to their diet.
A healthy lifestyle is centered on diet and exercise, but there is more: Attitude. Staying positive is extremely important, according to Robin. “Attitude must always be a factor in any life-changing program, especially the attitude of gratitude.”
Robin maintains spiritual rituals that start each day, including meditation and deep breathing. She uses movement as a healing strategy and draws strength from yoga, pilates, weight training and walking.
“Walking and being outside with nature are my best tools for feeling in tune with the natural healing power of the universe,” she said.
The whole family enjoys country hikes together, especially in the local woods or the North Carolina mountains.
Since 2012, Kevin has been an active athlete in Special Olympics. He loves playing basketball, and the annual Unified UNC vs. Duke game is the highlight of his year. He is on the Special Olympics competitive swim team and has an awesome butterfly stroke.
Robin said Kevin’s general outlook on life is positive and he is looking forward to finding a part-time job where he is valued. “We will never give up on Kevin having a quality life,” she said.
She emphasized: “The steps it takes to keep Kevin healthy and seizure free are challenging, but oh so worth it. I have learned so many valuable lessons in life from being Kevin’s mom.”
Finding a support group
During Robin’s very challenging search for answers she discovered that being part of a supportive alliance is essential. First she found a new community in USANA Health Sciences and then created her own local group. Robin founded Living Well Connections to bring together people who are interested in improving their overall health and wellness.
“We come from many different backgrounds, but we have all found power in improving our health through nutrition, movement, mindfulness, environment and stress relief,” she noted.
Living Well Connections offers local lunch and learn events and social gatherings and also provides a private Facebook group where members can communicate across the world.
To get information about Living Well Connections contact Robin at www.livingwellconnections.info or join the Facebook group at https://facebook.com/groups/livingwellconnections.
Robin will be offering a luncheon in Lillington or Dunn soon.
What is Robin’s advice to others search for solutions to sickness?
“When you are going through a difficult health challenge, take time to breathe. Find gratitude in the simple joys that lift you up and focus on hope. Every step you take toward wellness is worth it. Never give up!”
AlexSandra “Sandy Lynn” Lett is a professional speaker and an author. She can be reached at LettsSetaSpell@aol.com and 919-499-8880.