Thriving in the face of adversity: Gage Robinson is beating the odds
CANNON FALLS — The first thing you'll notice when meeting Gage Robinson is his infectious smile, one that seemingly spreads from ear to ear.
A beacon of positive energy and emotion, the 15-year-old high school student spends his free time unlike many of his teenage classmates: teaching about traumatic brain injuries.
Gage knows all too well the type of damage that traumatic brain injuries and shaken baby syndrome causes after his father dropped him, then shook him, at 10 weeks old.
Gage's mother, Penny Robinson, was on her fourth day back at work from maternity leave when the tragedy occurred. Penny was told by her husband that during a bath Gage had been dropped and was badly injured.
Gage was sent to Mayo Clinic Health System in Cannon Falls, but would be moved shortly after to the Children's Hospital in St. Paul.
While in St. Paul, Penny became uneasy with her husband's story about Gage's injuries.
"I feel like as a mother you get this gut instinct that something's not right," Penny said. "He was awake and stuff, but you knew something wasn't right."
The doctors informed the family that Gage had endured shaken baby syndrome.
The diagnosis and the impending criminal charges that would be brought against her husband floored Penny. Her weeks-old son fighting for his life. And she had no idea what kind of life Gage might live if he made it.
"At first you don't want to believe it," Penny said. "I'm thinking this is the guy I married. He's supposed to love and protect his children. I had never heard of shaken baby syndrome so I was in shock and didn't want to not believe what he was saying."
Gage asks about his father sometimes. Gage's father was granted supervised visits for one hour a week, which he did for a few weeks. But Penny said those visits became fewer. Today Gage hears from his father on certain occasions such as his birthday.
The subject of his father is a difficult one, with Gage having feelings of anger and confusion. Penny said she has tried to keep Gage's thoughts about his father positive, explaining to Gage that nobody walks up in the morning and says they're going to shake their child.
"You know you have every right to be angry, because you have a lot of difficulties throughout your life," Penny says to Gage. "You have to go to a lot of therapy, a lot of appointments. So you have every right to be angry."
She explained, "But I don't like portray that hate towards his dad because there may come a time that he wants to see his dad."
What does it mean to be successful in life?
The odds seemed stacked against Gage. Doctors thought he'd be non-verbal at best and need assistive devices for walking.
Today, he's an active high schooler who participates in swimming, bowling, and flag football amid regular and numerous doctor appointments. Gage doesn't have much downtime.
The idea of the mother-son team becoming public speakers grew from an eagerness to inform people about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome and traumatic brain injuries. The Gage Gives Back foundation was established and the Robinsons were off and running.
The foundation has donated money and items to the St. Paul Children's Hospital, the Institute of Exercise Medicine and Prevention and many more. Each year, the family and other volunteers take part in the Walk for Thought as the Gage Trotters, raising money for the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance.
Gage and Penny have spoken at the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance Convention and traveled as far as to Atlanta to speak to medical professionals.
During his speeches, Gage said he focuses on what success means to him — working to take back the day he was injured.
The way Gage closes his speeches speaks to his mindset, saying success is "a kid like me with a brain injury who never ever gives up."
"He's come a long way from what the doctors had predicted for him early on," Penny said. "But it comes with a lot of hard work and dedication."
The anger and confusion of "why did this happen to me" might still be there, but Gage and Penny are looking toward the future.
They'd like to see Minnesota become a purple state, like Iowa, which requires all hospitals to educate people on shaken baby syndrome. They also would like to see stricter laws for parents who abuse their children, including a child abuse registry.
As Penny says, a situation like Gage's didn't ever have to happen.
"This is something that's so important and it's something that could be so preventable with the right education," Penny said.
What does the future look like for Gage?
Aside from being a well-known speaker, Gage hopes to become an emergency medical technician some day, saying he wants to be able to help people in need.
The family has grown close to the paramedics, fire department and law enforcement in Cannon Falls and Goodhue County.
When he was younger, Gage would act like a police officer. Penny said it would be Gage's way of being able to take control of the situation if he was ever anxious or overwhelmed. Gage would say things like "I'm going to arrest you," helping him deal with an uncomfortable spot.
With Gage's condition, living on his own some day will be a challenge. The family and community members are trying to make that a reality, regularly meeting to make sure Gage is learning the same skills his peers are.
The Robinsons will head to Boston next year to see a specialist to help with Gage's depth perception and balance issues. Gage also must become seizure free if he has any chance of driving a vehicle in the future.
All of these complications — including struggles with short-term memory that has prompted the family to set up daily reminders to do tasks such as showering and brushing his teeth — might destroy someone's confidence and make them not ever want to try at life as an independent adult.
"What 15-year-old likes to spend their life going to therapies and doctors appointment? But he does it," Penny said. "And most of the time with a smile on his face."
For more information on the Gage Gives Back foundation, visit " target="_blank">www.gagegivesback.org/.