Bob Lotane Battles Great Odds to Direct Benefit Race

By Jennifer Portman, News Director  |  11:26 a.m. EDT September 30, 2015

Robin Lotane would have traded her cancer for all of it — the wheelchair, the useless legs, the curled hands — everything her husband Bob Lotane lives with today, a year after a random mosquito bite left his body ravaged.

Facing certain death five years ago, Robin, an accomplished 48-year-old attorney, was willing to try anything.

“We just wanted her to live,” Bob Lotane said at home this month, drinking red wine from a sippy cup secured in his motorized chair. “If she could get this deal she would have taken it in a minute, and that’s helped me in a perverse way.”

On Saturday — a day after his 57th birthday — Lotane will be honoring his late wife by serving as race director of the Robin Lotane Hurricane Run to benefit the Capital Area Red Cross in SouthWood. The race began in 2007, spearheaded by Robin, a former chief assistant state prosecutor and long-time Red Cross board member. After her death in 2010, Bob kept it alive in her honor.

This time last year, odds were good the race would memorialize both of them.

A former marathon runner and gym rat, Lotane has endured the physical challenge of his life, clawing back from total paralysis wrought by West Nile virus.

“The physical damage of what this did to me was so fast and so complete and so overwhelming,” he said. “It took Robin 15 months to get where I was in a matter of weeks … she was probably stronger than me at the end than I was after two weeks of this stuff. She could breathe, I couldn’t breathe.

“And to be caused by a mosquito — it’s bizarre.”

‘You are Bob Lotane’

The hits kept coming. The loss of his wife. Marrying again after finding love anew with his wife of nearly three years, Alissa Slade Lotane, only to be drug asunder again by his own cataclysmic disease.

Lotane remembers the day he faced the choice: give up and die or man up and live.

The messenger was a nurse at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Weeks had passed since the infection took hold, moving up from his feet in a paralyzing wave until he could barely turn his head to hit a hospital call button.

“I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow,” he said. “I was just lying in bed, staring at the ceiling or the TV. There was nothing else I could do.”

The nurse gave it to him straight. He could lie there with bed sores and fatal crushed spirit or he could fight.

“Somebody had to give me a swift kick in the ass and wake me up and say, ‘Alright, you are Bob Lotane, you can deal with this,’ ” he said.

And he has, with tenacity, grit and grace. That day he demanded physical therapy and hasn’t let up since. He and Alissa have celebrated every milestone, the first hand twitch, shoulder shrug and arm lift. Slowly, movement is coming back.

It’s still hard to wrap his head around, but Lotane is thankful. He feels lucky. Thanks to his dogged determination he can hit the shift key on his laptop. He can turn the page of the newspaper, he can hold himself up on the edge of his bed.

“It’s stupid little things like that that keep you sane,” he said. “But when you look at the things I may never be able to do, sometimes that can weigh heavy.”

A ‘brave new world’

West Nile left Lotane with transverse myelitis, a condition he described as one that basically sucked the muscles and nerves right out of his body. In about a third of all cases, those afflicted are left completely paralyzed; the middle third gets back some motion and sensory feeling; the last lucky third regain most of what was lost.

Lotane falls in the middle. It will be another year or so, most doctors say, before it is known how much function will return. Today he has feeling from chest up, and muscles in the core of his torso are firing.

He’s getting new movement all the time, but Lotane is realistic. His toe could be cut off and he wouldn’t notice.

“It’s safe to say the legs, if they come back, I won’t be running any marathons,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to walk again, but I’d be glad to be wrong.”

Lotane concedes he is more fortunate than most. He has the money to buy the latest equipment to build back his strength and make living easier. He can afford a good nurse assistant who cares for his basic needs and gets him to the post office and the Capitol, where he still works the halls on behalf of clients he represent as a senior adviser with Hill & Knowlton public relations firm.

He is not depressed, but has moments in which he grapples with the “brave new world” in which he and Alissa now live.

“I’m not happy where I am, but I’m happy where I am,” Lotane said. “It’s a weird thing, I want a lot more, but I’m very thankful that I’ve gotten what I’ve gotten, because I didn’t know.”

The first night back at their modest east-central Tallahassee home after months in rehab at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta was daunting. Bob and Alissa returned about midnight after the long drive to be greeted by a rented hospital bed. Alone and bewildered by the institutional equipment that would define their lives, both bawled.

“That’s where we started, that was welcome home,” he recalled. “Once we hit the brave new world we burst into tears, and that’s how it started.”

‘Just what you do’

Alissa, a bureau chief with the Department of State, has been steadfast. She focuses on the strides her husband has made. Early on, she was instructed to make funeral arraignments.

“She’s been a rock,” he said. “This was probably harder for her.”

She concedes she was “terrified” to bring him home, but couldn’t be more proud of how hard he has worked — hours of concerted effort a day — to regain the strength he can.

“I don’t know if people are surprised that I stayed, but leaving never crossed my mind,” Alissa said. “You just jump in with both feet and you do it. If you love someone, that’s just what you do.”

Now that the house is remodeled — an exhausting endeavor that involved widening every door and replacing carpet with wood floors, among other things — the Lotanes are looking forward to future. Bob is waiting for the green light to be able to travel to Europe next year. In December, they made it to Tampa for a Fleetwood Mac concert, checking off an adventure on Alissa’s bucket list.

No one knows what’s next for Bob’s recovery, but the Lotanes are sure of one thing.

“Every day, it gets easier,” Alissa said. “Today is as bad as it’s going to be.”

Contact Jennifer Portman at jportman@tallahassee.com or follow @jmportman on Twitter.

IF YOU GO

What: The 8th Annual Robin Lotane Hurricane Run

When: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday, The Walk/Fun Run begins at 8 a.m. and the 5K starts at 8:30 a.m. The cost is $16 to $18.

Where: SouthWood at 4079 Esplanade Way

Register: visit HurricaneRun.Eventbrite.com

Details: The race is intended to increase awareness about the Red Cross' mission and also raise much-needed funds. For more information contact Capital Area American Red Cross, 1115 Easterwood Drive, at 402-5613.


Article originally posted on the Tallahassee Democrat.

Kelsey Lehtomaa