Pam Robbins was an inspiration, committed to helping others and a dedicated volunteer for the Arthritis Foundation. We regret that she passed away in August 2012.
On a frosty winter day in Milwaukee, Pam Robbins is prepping to lead her walking group. They do laps around the auditorium of a senior center, and Pam is the one who makes this fun.
As the large, impersonal space fills up with African-American seniors, including a man with a walker and a woman on oxygen, Pam grabs the microphone and greets them as they find chairs for seated stretching exercises. Pam is bubbly and enthusiastic, with a thousandwatt smile; this volunteer leader of an Arthritis Foundation Walk With Ease class is clearly thrilled to be there. And her class members, it turns out, are a boisterous bunch, chatting with each other and shouting hellos back at Pam.
After stretching, it’s not just time to walk – it’s time to rock! Pam walks over to a boom box, sets her microphone in front of it and presses “play.” James Brown shouts and the class starts to move. Some groove. Everyone is full of energy. Surrounded by a few encouraging women, the man with a walker sets it aside and walks on his own.
“When I play music, they move! Gospel, blues, old-school – anything they want to hear. I see the difference [in how] the music makes them move,” Pam says. “They love it. I love it. When they say, ‘Pam, you motivate me so much,’ I cry. I am helping people.”
It’s hard to believe that such a contagiously optimistic, joyful woman as Pam lives with her own health burdens – osteoarthritis in both knees, Sjogrën’s syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease that causes extreme dryness of the moisture-producing glands – and esophageal cancer. Robbins, a retired registered nurse who has lived in Milwaukee since birth, was diagnosed in December 2006 with a tumor at the junction of her esophagus and her stomach. She endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and achieved remission a year later, but her cancer returned at the end of 2010. She credits daily physical activity, a healthy diet and her faith with keeping her strong and focused on the present.
“For me, faith is the most vitally important thing. It starts my day, ends my day, keeps me on the right track,” she says. Without her faith, she doesn’t know if she could have gotten through the cancer treatment, she adds, referring to the side effects of her chemotherapy several years ago.
It also helps that she has inspiring role models. Pam’s 84-year-old mother has rheumatoid arthritis, as do two of Pam’s sisters. She has seen them bravely deal with joint pain and disfigurement and difficulty with daily tasks. But, she says, “I got my positive attitude from my mother. She said, ‘You never give up. No matter what hits you, you always prevail. You always find ways to adapt. You can overcome any trial and tribulation along the way.’”
This attitude has helped Pam, a mother and grandmother, through personal and professional challenges, including a 1985 layoff and a 1992 divorce. It has also helped her inspire others.
After graduating from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Pam started her nursing career at the county hospital in 1972, where her patients included those with severe cancer and arthritis symptoms. “I remember from watching my family members with arthritis that you have to take your time, be gentle when you move their extremities,” she says. She worked for several years at the Milwaukee County Jail hospital, which included treating incarcerated AIDS and cancer patients, and she supervised a mental health center before retiring in 2004.
It seems she’s even busier in retirement than before. She has taught medical assistant classes, leads the Walk With Ease class three days a week – for which she recently won the Arthritis Foundation’s Life Improvement Series Volunteer of the Year Award – and line dances with the Roselettes, a local troupe of women older than 60 who practice twice weekly.
When cancer returned in 2010, Robbins declined further chemotherapy, radiation and a risky surgical procedure. Instead, she underwent an experimental laser procedure to burn the tumor and continues biweekly esophageal stretching. Her tumor has shrunk and is no longer measureable, says Robbins, who adds that she is pain-free and has energy for dancing and walking classes. Her life, no matter how long it lasts, will be led with joy and purpose, she says. “[I] have that belief that things will get better in time.”