HAMPTON – Two-year-old Sariah Winston is a bubbly toddler with a smile that is nearly irresistible.
She loves Dora the Explorer, Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax," and playing ball with her father, Michael Winston.
Watching her joyful activity doesn't convey that there is a battle with cancer raging inside her body — and her body is losing.
"Even though she looks good on the outside, inside she is really sick," Winston said.
Sariah was diagnosed this past summer with pleuropulmonary blastoma, a very rare and aggressive form of lung cancer that mainly affects children.
While Winston admits there have been many dark days over the past five months, he also knows that Sariah has been an inspiration to many, including his fellow officers at the Hampton Police Division.
In honor of Sariah, the police department is participating in their own version of No-Shave November to raise money for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Sariah was diagnosed on June 10 after an X-ray revealed a softball-sized tumor in her right lung.
Winston and his wife, Ebony, had been concerned with Sariah's health for several weeks. She was running unexplained fevers and had been extremely lethargic.
"The fact that she wasn't playing and she was getting in her bed early and going to sleep threw up some red flags for us," Michael Winston said.
After Sariah's diagnosis, she was immediately admitted to the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughter (CHKD) in Norfolk. A few weeks later, she had to be transferred to the intensive care unit because she could no longer breathe on her own.
"It was really bad. Every time she would take a breath, her whole body would move," Michael Winston said.
"The worst thing was seeing her die and be brought back, and she did that seven times in ICU. The first time was for 10 minutes," he added. "That was probably the worst day of my life."
Sariah remained on a breathing tube in ICU for two and a half months.
She has had numerous surgeries to fight the cancer, including one procedure to remove the initial tumor. She has also been through six rounds of chemotherapy and is expected to have two more.
The doctors have removed fluid from her lungs on several occasions and are still fighting to kill the remaining tumors in her lungs.
"The doctors still don't know if she will make it," Winston said. "Her strength has been amazing. Every time they try to count her out, she comes back."
"The doctors said she was not supposed to make it out of ICU, but she is a fighter," he added.
Rally of support
When Sariah was diagnosed, word slowly spread to Michael Winston's friends and co-workers at the Hampton Police Division.
"I wanted to help any way I could as soon as I heard," said Senior Officer Matthew Beagle.
Officers began taking it upon themselves to arrange fundraisers, just in case the Winstons needed additional help covering medical expenses.
Officers also began donating time and leave so Michael Winston could spend as much time as possible with his family during Sariah's treatments.
Winston said his wife, who works in a management position, had to continue to work, often long hours, throughout the process.
"It's been really stressful on her but she has to do what she has to do," Michael Winston said.
The Winstons are originally from Louisiana and do not have family in the area. When officers from the Hampton department began visiting the hospital on a regular basis, it meant a lot of the family.
"It was amazing," Michael Winston said. "I didn't ask for anything. They just did it all. They are so supportive."
The department raised about $10,000 for the family.
"What they did went above and beyond," Winston said.
The department later mentioned participating in the national No-Shave November program, which brings awareness to a variety of cancers. The department wanted to raise additional funds for the family, but Michael Winston said he felt someone else could use the funds just as much.
"A lot of organizations reached out to us, but we felt that there were so many who need it," Winston said. "We are fine. We have been blessed and could not ask any more of them."
The department understood the family's response but still initiated its November fundraiser, partnering with the Eagle 97.3 country radio station. Officers were asked to refrain from shaving for the entire month of November to help the children of St. Jude's.
Cpl. Mary Shackelford, a spokeswoman for the Hampton Police Division, said the department's regulations on facial hair only allowed officers to grow mustaches.
"We are a family and this is what we do when one of ours is in trouble. We do anything we can," Shackelford said. "We didn't have to move heaven and earth to do this and it has become an excellent team builder."
So far, the department has raised $800, which is already above their initial goal of $500.
The road ahead
The Winstons have experienced a lot since Sariah's diagnosis. They have tried to treat Sariah like a typical toddler and have savored every moment with their only child.
"Nobody said, 'Do you want to go through this?' It happened, so now we deal with it," Michael Winston said. "In our minds, she has made it already. We have had more time with her than we were supposed to get."
Sariah was released from CHKD on Oct. 28 and now travels to CHKD once a week for treatment. She is also seen in home once a week by a nurse.
After Sariah's eighth round of chemotherapy, the doctors plan to begin radiation treatments.
"They are going to try everything they can," Michael Winston said. "The chemotherapy is really what is keeping her alive. Without it, the tumors would grow wildly."
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, only 10 to 20 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with pleuropulmonary blastoma each year. There are no survival statistics on the disease because it is so rare. It occurs mostly in children under the age of 4, and symptoms can initially appear to be similar to many childhood illnesses, such as pneumonia or a respiratory infection.
If treatments are successful, children have to be continuously monitored throughout their life for reoccurrences.
Sariah will turn 3 years old in January, and Michael Winston said he can't wait to celebrate his daughter seeing another year.
Michael Winston offered advice for any family that finds themselves in a similar position: "Don't spend too much time focusing on what the doctors say. Spend that time with your child. The doctors may be right or wrong, but every moment you spend thinking about that is a moment you missed with your child."
"We take one day at a time," he added. "We enjoy her and thank God she is still here."
For more information on No-Shave November or to make a donation to the Hampton Police Division team in honor of Sariah Winston, visit http://www.stjude.org/noshavenovember, select "Donate to a Team," and search for Hampton Police Division. You also can follow @HamptonVAPolice on Twitter for additional information on how to participate.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun