(VIDEO) The Texas Tech senior is back in class with guide dog Chase at his side.
Pinpointing exactly where your future is headed is a slippery proposition, mostly because fate generally keeps its plans close to the vest.
You can guess or predict what lies ahead all you want, but one twist – small or large – can alter a future in a heartbeat.
Colin Baxter thought he had a good handle on where his life was headed in 2016 as he embarked on the final leg of his journey at Texas Tech University. Knock out six more classes to graduate and find somewhere to teach history. Lifelong dream and all that. Neat and tidy plans coming to fruition.
Sometimes, though, storms arise in life. As American author and artist Vivian Greene so eloquently stated, "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning how to dance in the rain."
For Baxter, the storm in his life came on unexpectedly. When you are a 20-year-old with the world at your fingertips, unexpected storms can be tough to process.
That was certainly true for Baxter, who was diagnosed with a pineal brain tumor in 2016. After a 14-plus hour surgery to remove as much of the mass as possible, Baxter was rendered totally blind. Instead of waiting on life to pass him by, the personable Texas Tech senior from tiny Alba, Texas, has learned how to dance a little differently.
Baxter is back on campus this fall taking six hours with the assistance of his guide dog Chase, a 65-pound yellow Labrador retriever. Despite his blindness, Baxter still maintains a healthy sense of humor and an upbeat, optimistic approach to life.
A problem begins to emerge
After a hectic first two years on campus, Baxter stayed in Lubbock in the summer of 2016 instead of going home to Alba so he could take Spanish III and inch closer to graduation.
He noticed that he felt light-headed and dizzy once in a while, but didn't think much of it, figuring the stress of working full time and taking a summer class was getting the better of him. By October of the fall semester, the same symptoms were persisting and his vision began to get fuzzy at times when he was working at a local restaurant. At times he said he would look suddenly to his left and when he looked back forward, the vision of what he had just looked at lingered in his mind.
On back-to-back days, Baxter's vision got gradually worse, so he tried to get more rest. When he woke up on Oct. 12, 2016, he “could barely see anything” but went to class anyway. When he couldn't make out the words on the large screen at the front of the classroom, Baxter left and checked in at the Student Wellness Center.
“The first nurse I talked to looked at my eyes and they didn't react, so she took me to the emergency room at University Medical Center,” Baxter said. “She called my mom and told her what was going on, and she immediately left work to go to the airport in Dallas to catch a plane.
“They took pictures of my eyes and detected something behind them, so they sent me for a CAT scan. My mom walked into my room a little after 4 p.m. and I had to ask who she was.”
True story, Kathleen Gilliland said, noting that the youngest of her three sons had not mentioned that he was struggling with his sight when she talked to him earlier that day.
“I walked in and he asked me who was there,” she said. “I knew something was really wrong when he did that because as my youngest – my oops child – he has always been my buddy and we know each other very well.”
Mom's intuition was on target.
Shortly after she arrived, a medical team walked into Baxter's room and the lead doctor delivered the numbing news that they had identified the tumor, followed by a second emotional jolt that surgery was needed as soon as possible.
“I crawled up in bed with him and we bawled our eyes out,” Gilliland said. “We did that for about 15 minutes, and then it was ‘OK, now what do we do.'”
Added Baxter, “That's not what you want to hear two months away from your 21st birthday. I kept thinking they'd give me some medicine and clear it up. I cried because it was nothing close to what I expected to hear. It wasn't a fear of death, but more that ‘This isn't what I'm supposed to be dealing with at this point of my life. I'm supposed to be getting close to the end of my college days and then getting the rest of my life started.'
“Everything stopped immediately when they told me I had a tumor. Everything. My entire life stopped.”
Only briefly, though. Because as Gilliland noted – and because of the way she raised Baxter and his two brothers – wallowing was not an option.
Accepting a diagnosis and moving on
Quickly after the diagnosis, Baxter was sent for a full-body MRI that revealed the one tumor was all he was dealing with. Doctors told Baxter the tumor had likely been growing in his brain for years because the symptoms aren't usually alarming – the affected penial gland secretes melatonin, so struggling to sleep is the main signal.
And what college student doesn't have trouble sleeping once in a while?
“I had struggled to fall asleep sometimes, but I thought it was just because I had an annoying roommate,” Baxter said with a smile.
The immediate treatment was a surgical procedure that inserted a tube in the top of Baxter's head to drain cerebrospinal fluid to relieve pressure off his optic nerves. That briefly allowed Baxter's sight to normalize.
Led by neurosurgeon Dr. Genevieve LaPointe, the UMC medical team presented a treatment plan to attack the tumor, including an optimistic prognosis that Baxter's sight might return at some level.
Fate again had different plans.
On Monday, Oct. 17, Baxter's surgery began and lasted much of that day as LaPointe and her team removed as much as they could of a ping-pong ball-sized mass. Baxter quipped that he told them they might've had a hard time differentiating the tumor from his brain.
Because of the extensive nature of the surgery, Baxter remained unconscious for two days until Oct. 19. During the procedure, LaPointe and her team discovered that his optic nerves were damaged beyond repair.
“I woke up blind and have been ever since,” Baxter said matter-of-factly.
“Dr. LaPointe told me they got about 60 percent of the tumor and wanted me to do chemo and radiation, and she believed after that I would be completely healthy other than my sight being gone.”
In the meantime, there was time for the deepest kind of reflection that only those who have pondered mortality can completely comprehend.
As he recovered in the pediatric wing between two young patients with brain tumors, Baxter found clarity in what he had been through and what laid ahead.
“I realized that the sight problem was secondary to living at that point,” he said.
“I still had a chance to live, and a lot of those kids around me didn't. One little girl next to me was crying because she wanted to live long enough to celebrate her quinceañera, but she died before she got to. That opens your eyes.”
Dancing, not waiting
On Dec. 11, 2016, Baxter's 21st birthday, he endured the second of four rounds of chemotherapy. Because he was required to have treatment every two weeks, he also spent Christmas Day in the chemo department.
From the beginning, Baxter revealed a steely resolve to deal with his new reality. But there were a few moments when he understandably wavered.
Gilliland recalled one when he wasn't eating because he didn't like the hospital food, so she had his nurse explain precisely what the installation of a feeding tube entailed.
“He sat straight up and said, ‘Mom, where do you want to go get me something to eat?'” she said with a chuckle.
Another day presented a moment that was much more dagger-to-the-heart stuff.
During the early phases of Baxter's new battle, Gilliland said she has only detected a few times when he was truly down in the dumps or showed emotion about his situation.
On one of those occasions, she knew her son was struggling so Gilliland asked what was bothering him.
“He told me ‘Mama you're just a memory to me now,'” she said. “It breaks my heart a little to this day when I think of him saying that.”
Those days were few and far between, though, because from the beginning of this unexpected journey, Baxter intended to dance and not wait for the storm to pass.
Taking the next steps
Maybe because the onset of his vision loss was so quick, or maybe because the diagnosis was so profound, Baxter didn't wait around for solutions to his problem.
Instead, a typical college kid with a focus on being a history teacher took an atypical approach to moving on.
There were absolutely hurdles to overcome as Baxter came to grips with a new world.
After several months in the hospital to finish chemo and radiation, Baxter went back to Alba and began rehab in nearby Quitman at a regional facility. He had lost 24 pounds from an already slight frame, so Baxter had to regain his physical strength. Little tasks, like tying his own shoes, also had to be re-learned.
One of the first big steps was to spend 3½ months at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center (CCRC) in Austin. That was where Baxter learned how to master orientation without sight, the new life skills he needed like using a cane and reading in braille, how to navigate the tools he needed to function without sight – computers, cell phones, document scanners, etc. – as well as how to independently take care of himself.
Somewhere along the way, Baxter's positive outlook on life got a boost.
“I'm very lucky that I was fully sighted for 20 years,” he said. “When I went to Criss Cole, I met people who have never had sight and struggle to understand what the color orange is like or what does a hippopotamus look like. I know all those things. It helps when I'm watching movies and stuff because I can create it in my mind. I'm no longer restrained by reality; I'm able to construct my own.”
In those first several months after Baxter lost his sight, there were professionals who tried to prepare him for what lie ahead – some graciously, some not so much.
He recalled a radiologist who bluntly said losing sight meant Baxter would never finish college because his ability to retain information would be compromised.
“I told him, ‘Yes, I will finish college because I have been working for this for too long,'” Baxter said. “I already had my life planned out this far, so I wasn't going to just give up. I even told the nurses and Dr. LaPointe before my surgery, ‘Whatever you do, please don't let me forget history!'”
Overcoming others' doubts
There also was some resistance/discouragement when Baxter brought up the idea of acquiring a guide dog. He was visited by a woman with a guide dog when he was still in the hospital in Lubbock and decided then that was going to be part of his adjustment.
Because his family lives in the country, Baxter has been around dogs all the time – he said there were as many as nine running around at one point – and he believed a guide dog made perfect sense for him.
As Baxter was getting used to using a cane during his rehab before he went to CCRC, an Orientation and Mobility instructor told him he was years away from getting a guide dog because they were for people who had learned to accept their blindness. Later, as he was wrapping up his time in Austin, another instructor echoed that opinion.
“People kept telling me that I needed to be angry about being blind,” Baxter said. “But I'm not angry. I'm just happy to be alive after everything I went through. A lot of people who go blind spend a lot of time in denial, and they emotionally collapse for years. I guess I'm an oddity because I figure I got 20 years with sight, and now it's time for me to live the rest of my life without it.”
While Baxter took two classes online from Alba last spring, he and Gilliland explored the guide dog options. With Texas Tech men's basketball coach Chris Beard lending a hand in the process, Baxter found one that fit in New Jersey called The Seeing Eye.
When Baxter contacted the company, an adviser asked if he had gone through Orientation and Mobility Training – the work he had completed at CCRC. When he confirmed he had, the response was exactly what Baxter was hoping to hear.
“They said there was no reason I couldn't get a dog,” Baxter said. “So I asked if I could get a dog in time to get back on campus in August, and they said I could. I applied in March and got accepted in April.”
To complete that major step, Baxter was required to go to the facility in suburban New York City and learn how to manage a guide dog. He got on an airplane for the first time in his life – joking that he intentionally requested a window seat for the trip – and spent part of his summer finding a new companion.
Before a client is matched with a dog, they are asked for a preference and required to spend time with different options. Though Baxter was eager to accept any dog that The Seeing Eye was willing to partner with him, he did have a certain personality in mind.
“I wanted a dog who had nowhere to go and all day to get there,” he said. “They found me a perfect fit with Chase.”
Shortly after Baxter got settled in New Jersey, an attendant brought Chase to his room. It didn't take long for Baxter to be smitten with the yellow lab, who was ironically born on Oct. 19, the same day Baxter woke up with his sight gone for good.
“He was still a puppy, so he was rambunctious and running around the room sniffing everything,” Baxter said. “They described him to me and I'd give anything just to see him just once.
“There is definitely a much closer bond between a blind person and a guide dog. It takes a lot of discipline on the part of the human because they're not pets. He is not allowed on furniture. I am the only person who feeds him. He doesn't get any human food so that he never begs in a restaurant. Unless Grandma drops a fry, and she's known for doing that occasionally.”
Back home with a new companion
Once the match was made, Baxter and Chase flew back to Texas where the dog was greeted by 100-plus temperatures most of the summer while his owner was in Alba preparing to return to Lubbock.
When the fall semester began, Baxter moved back into Carpenter/Wells Hall so he and Chase could get acclimated. There were some growing pains as Chase tried to fit in.
Not all of them were painful, though.
Chase had to get used to the constant presence of the West Texas pigeon population as he and Baxter made their way to class. There are also occasional encounters with “cute girls who want to pet my buddy – they always say ‘Well, aren't you handsome,' and I'm going to assume they're talking to me.
“I thought it would take until October for him to kind of calm down and get our routine down, and it has,” Baxter said with a smile. “This morning he did perfect. Coming back, not so great. He still has puppy tendencies. I'm kind of at an unfair advantage because I know this campus so well, know what it looks like. So I know when we're on the right path and when we're not and can tell when he starts to stray.”
Besides the occasional pigeon escapade and those welcome moments of flirtation with women, Chase has settled in.
Baxter said the dog stays quiet in classroom settings for the most part, often taking naps. He has gotten restless a few times and groaned like only restless puppies can, but that was in a history class taught by Zachary Brittsan, a professor Baxter has had for classes twice before.
“Chase made that noise when Dr. Brittsan said something and he just joked about it, so everybody laughed,” Baxter said. “If he is sitting or lying down not bothering anyone, it's not a big deal if they want to pet him. He understands when he's supposed to be working because he's bred and trained to perform specific tasks.”
A goal back on track
As much as it can be after a sudden, profound change, Baxter's life is back to normal. Routines have been re-established and at least one important goal is still firmly in place: Graduate from Texas Tech.
That is something Baxter has never wavered on. In fact, it took some soul-searching and convincing before he would even consider de-enrolling from classes that fall when the tumor was detected and removed.
Adjustments have been needed. Professors' cooperation is vital because Baxter needs class lectures on Word documents so he can transfer them to braille.
Baxter and his mom credit Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec for facilitating the return to campus.
“I met President Schovanec while I was still in the hospital and he told me whatever I needed from the school, he was going to make sure I was taken care of,” Baxter said. “It was pretty amazing to hear that from the president of a school the size of Texas Tech and then even more amazing that he has checked on me a bunch of times to make sure that I'm doing OK.”
There have been some struggles at times. Baxter concedes that the radiologist was correct to a point in his assessment that high-level learning would be a major challenge.
“It does take me longer to retain information because it's more of a process with the way I have to access everything,” he said.
As vital as Chase has been, Baxter has had to learn to let life around him move at a slower pace because of his loss of sight. What he refuses to do is let blindness stop him from achieving what he wants to accomplish.
“I think of my future as taking it one day at a time now, and that's different than how I used to be,” Baxter said. “I used to think years and years ahead. I had everything mapped out and wasn't going to stray from my plans. I live much more in the now than I ever did before. As long as I get to wake up, get out of bed and do what I need to do, I am going to be just fine.”
With mom's full approval. After all, she wasn't going to allow her youngest son to surrender that easily.
Not the kid who on “Dress Like Your Teacher Day” insisted on putting a pillow under his shirt to resemble his pregnant first-grade teacher. Not the kid who relished his role as the mascot for the Alba-Golden High School Panthers. Not the kid who insisted on attending college 8½ hours from home to be different than his older brother, Morgan, who went to Texas A&M.
“Crying and giving up doesn't solve anything,” Gilliland said. “You have to pick yourself up and keep living. Colin was blind all of a sudden, but he didn't want to withdraw from school, even that first semester. To quit school was never a thought for him. To him, all of this is just a fork in the road or a veer from what he had planned – he realized he wasn't going to be able to take a straight path to what he wanted. Now we look at it as just a temporary detour. He has always had very specific goals, and I was going to make sure he was not letting anything stand in his way.”
Once the immediate goal of earning a Texas Tech degree is marked off the to-do list, Baxter's future is a little less certain.
For as long as he can recall, Baxter has wanted to be a history teacher. Blindness might require a change in that blueprint, and right now he isn't sure where to re-direct his plans.
“I don't know how or what path I'm going to take,” Baxter said, noting that he has added political science as a minor. “I'm not as tied to teaching as I was before. I'm really wide-open for any options because I have to be.”
With no constraints, despite the challenges his new life presents.
Gilliland has accepted that her son might have to shuffle the plans he held onto tightly for as long as either of them can remember. She chooses to believe things happen for a reason, including his tumor and loss of sight.
“I think maybe he was meant for bigger things and this is his platform for that,” Gilliland said. “Being blind gives him a different perspective. I know he believes those 20 years he had sight give him better insight and he wants to make a difference. What that difference is, I don't know.
“But I believe in my heart that there is something bigger out there that he can do.”
Plans change. Storms pop up. You either wait for them to pass or you dance in the rain.
For Baxter, that choice was never in question. He's going to dance.