By Rita Price
The Columbus Dispatch
Posted Feb 23, 2018
Althea Lyles long ago lost count of all the times her grandson could have died.
There were the initial burns more than 65 percent of his body. Then came the surgeries, infections and brain-damaging episodes of cardiac arrest.
And the pain? Doctors and nurses worked heroically to keep it at bay. But it was hard not to wonder.
“They literally had to scalp him once to transfer the skin,” Lyles said.
Robert “Robbie” Lyles IV was 3 years old in 1998 when, investigators said, his mother’s 17-year-old boyfriend put him in a tub of scalding water because the child had wet his pants. Robbie turned 23 on Thursday. His grandmother wants the community to know he is still strong, still fighting, still just as loved as when his body and mind were perfect.
His family and staff members at the Heinzerling Community, a residential center in Columbus for people with severe and profound developmental disabilities, threw him a birthday party to celebrate.
“He’s a blessing,” said Holly Whitaker, a nurse at Heinzerling. “Robbie has changed my life, for sure.”
He can’t walk, speak or chomp down on the cake decorated for him. Robbie has plenty of ways, however, to signal his joy. He loves to hear music first thing in the morning, and he delights in a massage. He smiles. And he even likes a nice bath.
“Sometimes we’re out in the community, and someone will say, ‘Oh, I feel so sorry for him,’” Whitaker said.
Yes, she thinks to herself, it’s terrible what happened to Robbie. And dozens of others at Heinzerling, along with their families, have struggled in ways difficult to imagine. “But they do still feel happy; they have lives,” Whitaker said. “Robbie is stronger than I am. All the kids here are.”
Lyles, who lives in Whitehall, was thrilled several years ago when Robbie was able to move to Heinzerling, a nearly 60-year-old agency on the West Side that serves people of all ages. The youngest resident is 3; the oldest just turned 82.
“I’ve been here 28 years, and I know I make a difference every day,” said Jani Duncan, a unit manager who knows Robbie well. “It’s not like having a job.”
Robbie’s first months and years after he was hurt were spent in hospitals, nursing homes and with family members as they tried to tend to his complex needs at home. It’s hard to overstate the severity of his injuries, said Dr. Gail Besner, chief of pediatric surgery at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“This was a really tragic case that I will never forget for the rest of my life, because he was such a beautiful, normal little boy,” she said. “For a lot of his operations, he was too sick to even move from the intensive-care unit. We had to bring the operating room to him. That was the first and last time I’ve ever had to do that.”
Besner also can’t forget his grandmother’s devotion. “She never gave up on him and was always his supporter,” she said.
Robbie’s father, Robert Lyles III, is still a part of his son’s life. His aunt, younger brother and cousins visit, too. The family says his mother didn’t stay in the picture long after Robbie was burned.
Her former boyfriend, Wesley Thompson, pleaded guilty to endangering a child and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
“It was a hard time,” Robert Lyles III said. “I remember being in that hospital chapel, just wanting him to live.”
Althea Lyles swears she used to hear a voice telling her Robbie wouldn’t die, but she figured no one would believe her, so she kept it to herself. The darkest hours, when she asked whether it really was best for him to survive, were fleeting.
“What always happened was, he got better,” she said, beaming at Robbie in his red bow tie and polka-dot suspenders at his birthday celebration.
“He’s well-loved, well taken care of. He’s quite the little icon.”