Colin's angels-- Family, friends do best to keep boy's spirit alive

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

This story does not have a happily-ever-after ending. How can it when Colin J. Dembo, a beautiful, blue-eyed 5-year-old boy, dies suddenly in his father's arms in a hospital emergency room after experiencing what appeared to be symptoms resembling the flu?

But Mitch and Patrice Dembo hope that by spreading the word about viral myocarditis--through a memorial foundation in their son's name, a website honoring his too-short life and the efforts and medical research of Dr. Jeffrey A. Towbin, a leader in heart diseases of children--that other parents might never feel the emptiness, devastating sadness and permanent loss they did on Oct. 25, 2005.

"It is painful, but it's part of the grieving process, and it helps me to talk about the story because we want to keep Colin's memory alive," said Mitch Dembo.

Their story begins much like any other family's does.

Dembo, 48, a Genesee County attorney living in Grand Blanc, was born in Miami and adopted the day after he was born. He grew up on Long Island, N.Y. and graduated from the University of Delaware in 1984 with a degree in criminal justice.

He came to Michigan to attend the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, and midway through, met his future wife at a party given for students who were halfway through law school. Patrice had just finished getting a degree from Michigan State University, but was working as a bartender while waiting to return to school for a pharmacy degree.

The two met at the party, and fell in love. Mitch graduated from Cooley in 1987, but decided to remain in Michigan.

"I liked the people, I liked the state," he said, and he loved Patrice and her parents and family.

She was from North Branch, but the couple moved to Grand Blanc and were married in 1991. For the next 14 years, they were the picture of the perfect, average family. Mitch practiced law, Patrice was a pharmacist at a local Meijer's store, and they raised three boys--Tyler, 17, Evan, 15, and Colin, who was born in 2000.

They did everything a normal family does. Taking the boys to various events, playing sports, camping and church. But they said Colin completed their family. "He was amazing," Mitch said. "He'd walk in and light up the room with his smile." They described him as happy, bright, and very precocious, would sing, dance and act to entertain everyone.

"He'd go all day, and when he was tired, he'd just go to sleep where ever he was," Mitch said. "And he'd be the first one up in the morning, always in a great mood, and he'd get us all fired up for the day. Colin was the sparkplug for our family."

When he finally started kindergarten, he couldn't wait to take the school bus. But after his first day, he came home and said, "I quit." But he got over it quickly and was anxious for day 2.

But their world began to crash in late October 2005. On Saturday, Colin became ill with cold-like symptoms. They took him to an after-hours clinic, and tried to relieve his fever with medicines after the doctor there diagnosed it as flu, saying it would run its course. Their other children had gone through the cold and flu bug, and this looked no different.

On Sunday, Colin seemed fine, and acted normal. Still, Patrice kept him home from school Monday. Later that day, he threw up. On Tuesday, his lips began to turn blue, and he appeared listless and worn out.

"But he felt cold," Mitch said, and they decided to take him to the hospital to get checked out.

While checking him in and pulling out his insurance card, Mitch felt Colin slump, like he had gone to sleep.

"But it felt like something else," he said. "His heart stopped."

Doctors said Colin's body temperature had fallen to 94.7 degrees, and they worked on reviving him for two hours, to no avail. At 5--years young, Colin was dead.

"It was the worst thing ever in my life," Mitch said.

Instead of leaving the hospital with their son, they left with a bag of his belongings.

"We were just shocked, and bawling, because we're holding our son in our arms, and he's dead," Mitch said.

Weeks later, after an autopsy, they discovered Colin died from viral myocarditis, which attacks the heart muscles.

"It was so surreal for a long time," Mitch said. "It still is."

For the next several years, Mitch and Patrice tried to pull the family back together and launched a personal investigation to learn as much as they could about viral myocarditis "to solve the mystery."

They were led to Towbin, a pediatric heart expert at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, and he agreed to become involved in the Dembo family's awareness campaign. The Dembos, relatives, and Colin's godparents launched a website and a foundation, and in 2007 began the Colin's Angels Golf Outing.

The family said the idea for those events came early, but they had to wait for a time when they were mentally ready to tackle such a huge project.

"Colin's death was just too painful and overwhelming for quite a long time," Mitch said.

So far, the nonprofit foundation has raised more than $18,000 for Towbin's research of the illness. Another $4,000 has been donated to Cook Elementary School in Grand Blanc, where Colin attended kindergarten, for an annual literacy project.

And Towbin has held two lectures at the Genesys Regional Medical Center, where Colin was treated, speaking to professionals in health care to educate them on the symptoms, treatment and prevention strategies for viral myocarditis.

At the golf outing on July 26, Towbin said viral myocarditis is "uncommonly recognized" by most emergency room personnel and is often not diagnosed until an autopsy.

"It's an under-estimated problem," he said, because it looks like the flu or a bad cold.

In some cases, when it is found early on, medications or other treatments can be used to fight it. Severe cases may require a heart transplant. He said even the best and biggest hospitals can miss the correct diagnosis.

"If it's not on their list of possibilities, they'll never think of it," Towbin said. "That's why the education side of it becomes key."

One thing that can be done is for health professionals to listen closely to the heart and lungs, and if something doesn't sound right, take an ultrasound picture of the heart.

"We have to think a little more deeply at this point and try to make sure were not sending someone home who's going to come back very sick," he said.

But there is hope, he said. Research advances have developed diagnostic tests that can identify a heart virus.

"Twenty years worth of work is starting to pay off, but we've got a long way to go," Towbin said.

The Dembos still struggle with Colin's death. For a long time, his room was left as it was the morning they took him to the hospital.

"I'd just sit in there and cry," Mitch said.

Now a guest room, some of Colin's toys still remain.

"It's still weird walking by the room," he said.

Colin was cremated, and his ashes are the central piece in a simple shrine in the home. More than 700 people attended the funeral, but the "Thank You" notes have yet to be written. Colin was going to be a Ninja on Halloween, just a week after he died, so he was wore that costume in his coffin.

"Now, he'll be a Ninja forever," Mitch said.

He said after the funeral, everyone goes back to their own lives, "but you're left holding this, and you feel really alone."

But Colin's spirit is very much felt in the home. The family said they've all had unexplained experiences at home which can only be attributed to that. One story they tell is how, two weeks before his death, Colin ran in and said he wanted to be a bird "so you can fly wherever you want to."

A month after the funeral, while Mitch was crying and writing a poem, he heard something on the screen and saw a bluebird. He walked into another room, and the bird flew to that screen. It followed him to another room. Blue just happened to be Colin's favorite color, too.

They later got a bird house, and the bluebird found a mate and had little bluebirds.

"That kinda brightened up our days," Mitch said.

Mitch said his law practice has "suffered tremendously" since Colin's death.

"For the first year after he died, I didn't care," he said. "All I wanted to do was get the family back to 'normal.'"

But his clients, the courts and judges and other attorneys have been very understanding, and he continues to practice law.

The Dembos say some days are better than others, and they get by with the love from family and support of friends, and through the website and events they take part in.

"You have to accept it as a part of life," Mitch said. "We were blessed to have him alive, and now he's our guardian angel, looking over us."

Published: Thu, Aug 12, 2010