Cancer Wouldn’t Define Them. Now These Former Cook Children’s Patients are in Love, in Remission and New Parents.
Shelbie and Kaleb bonded over how they both viewed cancer as a part of who they were but it did not define them.
World Cancer Day on Feb. 4 is an important day to raise awareness about prevention, detection, and treatment. Started by the Union for International Cancer Control in 2008, World Cancer Day activities seek to significantly reduce illness and death caused by cancer. On World Cancer Day, we're sharing the stories of Kaleb and Shelbie Collins, former patients at Cook Children's.
Story by Heather Duge. Video by Tom Riehm.
When Shelbie Collins signed up for a camp just for kids with cancer in 2008, she had no idea the countless ways it would change her life.
As she battled cancer, little did she know that her future husband, Kaleb, was in his own fight with cancer and that their paths would intersect at Camp Sanguinity.
A Shocking Diagnosis
On the last day of second grade, Shelbie Collins woke up lethargic and not feeling well. Her mom thought it could be a virus but took her to Sandra Peak, M.D. of Cook Children's Pediatrics Lewisville - Castle Hills, just to be sure. At the office in Carrollton, Dr. Peak noticed a contusion on Shelbie’s arm and bruising on her chest. She suspected leukemia and immediately ordered blood tests.
“In that kind of situation, you’re working five steps ahead of what is happening in the room,” Dr. Peak said. “I ordered blood tests stat.”
That same day, Dr. Peak had to make the phone call every pediatrician dreads. She was not able to reach Shelbie’s mom, so she called her dad.
“That is a conversation that will forever be etched in my mind,” Dr. Peak said. “Her dad was instantaneously devastated and ready to attack the cancer. The security Shelbie’s parents had in their child’s health was pulled out from them instantly. That one phone call changed everything.”
Journey to Healing
Shelbie remembers her dad setting her on his lap and saying the words “you’re sick and we’re going to take you to Cook Children’s and will be by your side the whole time.” But Shelbie says it didn’t really sink in until she was at the hospital and heard the words “acute lymphoblastic leukemia” and “chemotherapy.”
W Paul Bowman, M.D., Shelbie’s oncologist at Cook Children’s, would lead the team providing Shelbie’s comprehensive care.
Treatment began immediately and a couple of weeks in, she underwent surgery to receive a port. Dr. Bowman talked to her parents about a therapy program he coordinated – Total XV protocol which is a research partnership between Cook Children’s and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that includes three phases and lasts 2 and a half years.
Shelbie’s parents agreed to the protocol, and the first phase, induction, involved 46 intense days of chemotherapy. During the second phase, consolidation, Shelbie received high dosages of chemotherapy for three to four days biweekly. After two months of phase two, Shelbie moved to the final phase, continuation, with chemotherapy once a week.
“Through the inevitable ups and downs of chemotherapy, Shelbie remained a positive and happy child,” Dr. Bowman said. “She was always inquisitive and wanted to participate actively in her treatment with an understanding of the purpose behind each procedure and medication.”
Taking a Turn for the Worse
Sixteen months into her treatment, Shelbie’s doctors discovered she had gallstones. Later that evening, she spiked a fever and developed sepsis, a severe illness caused by an overwhelming infection of the bloodstream by toxin-inducing bacteria. Her kidneys shut down, and within 24 hours, she was in septic shock. Dr. Peak rushed to the hospital.
“When I walked into her ICU room, she was surrounded by so many doctors and nurses and on a ventilator. I could see the devastation in her parents’ faces. In that moment, it was the most fear I have ever felt as a physician.”
Dr. Peak and Shelbie’s other doctors discussed options as she only had a less than 1% chance of making it through the night. Britt Nelson, M.D., and the other doctors decided dialysis was the only option for her to have a chance at survival. Dr. Nelson's idea to do dialysis saved Shelbie’s life, Dr. Peak said.
“She was very sick,” Dr. Peak said. “Angels were flying so low around her that night.”
‘Miracles do Happen’
Shelbie was in an induced coma and fought through the infection for nearly three months in the hospital, not able to receive any chemotherapy. As the infection proved relentless, Shelbie proved resilient. She overcame sepsis and had to relearn how to walk and eat again.
What was planned for six months in rehabilitation ended up only being six weeks. After only three weeks, Shelbie’s determined spirit was on display as she started walking on her own.
“It was amazing to see Shelbie after that, walking into my office with all her energy and positivity. She is a reminder that miracles do happen.”
Shelbie’s cancer ultimately was put into remission, and she remains cancer-free.
Another Journey with Cancer Begins
In 2007, as Shelbie was nearing the end of her treatment, Kaleb Collins was just beginning his journey with cancer at Cook Children’s. He was 10 years old at the time and played baseball almost every day in his hometown of Wichita Falls. So, when Kaleb’s right knee began to swell, his parents thought it was a baseball injury.
After the first set of scans, doctors initially thought it was a growth plate fracture, but full body scans later revealed a different diagnosis – osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in his knee.
Dr. Bowman also served as Kaleb’s primary pediatric oncologist as Kaleb underwent chemotherapy and a total knee replacement while taking part in a childhood cancer research study which involved 70 weeks of injections. In early 2010, Kaleb finished his treatment.
“Both Shelbie and Kaleb were fortunate to have the support of loving parents and family who contributed to a sense of security and emotional stability during their prolonged course of treatment and follow-up,” Dr. Bowman said. “They faced childhood cancer with courage and determination.”
“Looking back, I feel blessed,” Kaleb said. “I had a great mentor who was treated at Cook Children’s years ago and helped me through. I remember the people who cared for me always looking for ways to distract from the reason I was there, like Dr. Donald Beam and Dr. Kenneth Heym who would play games with me and amazing nurses who still keep in touch.”
During the summer of 2008, Shelbie and Kaleb arrived at Camp Sanguinity – it would be her last year and his first time as a camper at a place they both found to be their safe haven. After meeting and sharing each other’s stories, they realized a common bond: they both viewed cancer as a part of who they were but something that did not define them.
“Having gone through cancer, we have more empathy for each other and a different lens for us to look at others,” Shelbie said. “We took our experiences and turned them into that strength.”
Kaleb describes his time at camp as an incredible week where kids with cancer just get to be kids.
In the summer of 2014, Shelbie and Kaleb went back to the camp for a leadership retreat for childhood cancer survivors. This time they reconnected and stayed in touch.
Shelbie remembers the day their relationship shifted to being more than friends when she visited him after surgery in December 2014.
“Sparks flew almost instantly,” Shelbie said. “I remember Kaleb texted me on my way home.”
A New Chapter Together
Five years later, Kaleb proposed to Shelbie and the next chapter of their lives began in Oklahoma. Knowing the couple may have difficulty getting pregnant after undergoing chemotherapy, they were referred to a fertility specialist. While waiting for the appointment, Shelbie found out she was pregnant with their miracle baby. One of her first thoughts was moving back to be close to family and another very important person to them – Dr. Peak.
After their son, Graham, was born in 2021, the couple decided it was time to move closer to home.
“I made an appointment with Dr. Peak,” Shelbie said. “She started bawling. Graham was three months old when he first met her. Dr. Peak being Graham’s doctor has been the cherry on top. Watching her take care of our miracle baby is the biggest blessing to us.”
Dr. Peak feels the same way and loves her “grandpatients.”
“I have always wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid and played clinic for fun,” Dr. Peak said. “It is moments like taking care of Graham that remind me how blessed I am to be there for the whole family.”
Gaining Strength from her Patients
When Dr. Peak was faced with her own health challenge a couple of years ago, it was her experience with Shelbie that helped her get through the tough times.
“When someone tells you it’s cancer, your whole world crashes,” Dr. Peak said. “It had been years of me giving that news and I never dreamed I would be on the other end.”
In moments of despair, as she fought through treatment to fight breast cancer, Dr. Peak thought of Shelbie and other kids who handled cancer with such grace and strength.
“How could I not be strong?”
Giving Back to Others
Shelbie and Kaleb visit Cook Children’s for annual checkups together and provide research on the protocols as part of the Cancer Survivor Program. They have a passion for giving back in ways they were given – such as being counselors at camp. They served in that role for four years and have plans to go back.
Kaleb said he shares hope with the campers at Camp Sanguinity by showing them they have a lot to look forward to as survivors, counselors and even having a family one day.
“Camp is everything,” Shelbie said. “It is so impactful, and we have every intention of going back as counselors this year.”
Shelbie also regularly gives back in another way – her job. She says that watching nurses interact with families while she was a patient and shadowing in the Hematology-Oncology Clinic at Cook Children’s gave her a passion for helping others in the medical setting but in a different area.
“I wanted to save that part of life for camp,” Shelbie said. “It hit a little too close to home being back in the Oncology area.”
Shelbie now works as a nurse in the postpartum unit at a local hospital.
Part of the Family
Dr. Peak beams as she talks proudly about Shelbie and all she has overcome. She truly feels as if Shelbie and her family are part of hers now.
“I carry my families and kids with me, and they will always be a part of me,” Dr. Peak said. “Shelbie is with her miracle baby now, but she is my miracle baby.”
While other little girls hosted tea parties, a young Sandra Peak, M.D, opened a "clinic" and forced her brother to either be a nurse or the parent bringing in dolls to be bandaged. So it's certainly no surprise that she grew up to become a pediatrician and care for kids.
"I chose pediatrics because, at least for me, it was the one place in medicine where I felt I could truly change a person's life—and I could do that simply by educating their parents," Dr. Peak said. "Plus, kids are truly amazing! They have a natural empathy that I identify with. The best parts of my job are the hugs, high fives, giggles and eye rolls ... plus an unlimited supply of lollipops.
Wait, eye rolls? Yes. Dr. Peak has the kind of humor that inspires good-natured eye rolls from her family. In spite of their eye rolls, she adores them. She calls her husband, Jay, "an amazing man whose selfless dedication to our family inspires me every day." She says her stepson, Sage, is a constant source of hilarity and keeps her and her husband on their toes.
"It's easy to identify with kids ... especially when, in your heart, you're still a kid too," Dr. Peak said. "The secret is putting yourself in their place. Remembering how big and scary and wonderful and mysterious the world seemed when you were little."
Earning a B.A. degree in English and psychology from Baylor University helped Dr. Peak communicate with the children she treats today. After Baylor, she followed her passion and attended medical school at University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Her pediatric residency was at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock, where she participated in Angel One emergency helicopter transport service. While there, she also received the Jocelyn Elders Award for excellence in community service. Dr. Peak returned to her home town of Dallas in 1998 and established a pediatric practice in neighboring Carrollton, Texas. She joined Cook Children's Physician Network in Lewisville in 2004.
But she didn't stop there! Dr. Peak is a certified ImPACT concussion provider. An especially important role since we live in a very sports oriented area. She's also an associate professor at TCU's medical school, where she is helping to shape the future of medicine through her teachings. In 2022, she become a Director of Primary Care for Cook Children's Physician Network. When asked about all her commitments, she will tell you that she is always learning new things that ultimately help her to continually stay on top of the latest in pediatric medicine and grow as pediatrician. In her spare time, Dr. Peak enjoys gardening, Pilates, and boating. She can often be found at the lake with Jay, Sage and the world's most amazing Labs, CeCe and Luke.
A Moment of Magic
During Shelbie’s treatment, Dr. W Paul Bowman, who served as an oncologist for 38 years at Cook Children’s, invited Shelbie and her mom to a Nutcracker performance. Shelbie spiked a fever and was devastated to miss such a special evening. Dr. Bowman got a pair of ballet slippers from the dancers signed for Shelbie and brought them to the hospital after the performance. He said presenting Shelbie with the slippers was a personal thrill for him. “It meant the world to me,” Shelbie said. “I still have those slippers.”