My son, my friend, my hero

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Imagine, you are a 3-year-old boy, you love watching Barney (a half-hour program being the extent of your attention span) and your Dad tells you he would like for you to sit with him and watch an NBA basketball game (for the first time).

So you climb up, sinking into his big lap (and Dad expecting you to fall into a deep sleep), and an adventure begins.

Unaware that a seed is being planted in a young child, Dad is surprised to see that his boy is not falling asleep but that, as the game continues, he is charged with excitement as he watches these athletes competing on the court. This team, the Chicago Bulls, would become his favorite. And like so many people, Michael Jordan would become his man to watch.

Now, I am sure there have been many fans who have watched Michael play ball. They have rooted him on and felt they were his biggest fan. So many people chanting and singing, "I wanna be like Mike."

But this particular young fan never said "wanna," he would say, "I'm GONNA be like Mike."

So, from then on, he'd practice his dribbling and basketball skills. He did not get involved with the YMCA until he was 5 years old, but that didn't stop his earlier progress at home.

When my son was not yet 5 he became very ill. He was rapidly losing weight. Getting around was more and more difficult. He said he was hurting all of the time. He slept most of the time, when not in school. People would tell us it was just growing pains. We became very worried, and took him for a visit to his pediatrician.

The doctor examined him and ran blood tests. He told us that it could be a couple of different things, but that he didn't want to waste precious time trying to figure it out. He said we needed to take him to Seattle Children's Hospital. He called them and arranged for us to admit him the very next day.

Arriving at the hospital was such a scary time, as the fear of the unknown was overwhelming. My husband retrieved a wheelchair and proceeded to lift our son from the car and place him in it, as he was unable to walk on his own at this point. We were soon escorted to the cancer ward, where our fragile little man would be admitted. The fear grabbed me by my throat, choking me; they told us not to be scared.

The doctor told us that leukemia could very well be the cause of his symptoms. They continued to run tests while we waited and tried to keep calm for this little man in so much pain.

The next evening, the doctor told us they had some answers. He said it looked like it is Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, which is a serious illness but not like that of leukemia. They continued with the poking and prodding of our son and started treatments through IV tubes.

After a few more days, the doctor told us that we would be able to take our son home soon. He said that we had to realize that it was very possible our child may never walk again. He had over 100 points of arthritis in his little body.

Wow, what a bombshell.

As we were listening to the doctor, a little voice behind us (across the room) was trying to get my attention.

"Mom! Mommy!...." he said.

I couldn't make out the rest, as I was still giving the doctor most of my attention.

I went over beside the bed and said, "What is it baby"?

He asked, "What about Mike, Mom?"

I was still reeling from the doctor's news. I said, "What, who?"

He said, "Mike, Mom. Remember, I'm gonna be like Mike!"

I could have, at that very moment, burst into a bucket of tears. He was so serious, so focused. I held back the tears from my eyes and told him, "Don't worry about Mike right now, baby, let's just get you better. Ok?"

He must have heard our conversation with the doctor.

We left the hospital just one week before Christmas. We were given medication instructions (injections twice weekly and pills daily). They told us this was an illness that he could potentially grow out of, if we caught it in time.

I drove to Seattle every month for his checkups and blood tests. After six months of visits, the doctors told me that while he had been making progress, the medicine is no longer working and he is getting worse again.

I was given some choices for treatment.

They told me they could try chemotherapy treatments, but this could cause cancer. I told them this, of course, was not an option I would consider.

The doctor told me that he had started a drug study. It was a drug that had worked well on other subjects. They had to do this study to get the data needed to get the drug passed through the FDA, so that it could be sold and used by others. I was told that my son's test results had shown him to be a great candidate for the study. This appeared to me as the lesser of two evils, when it came to the options I was given.

We followed the doctor's instructions and continued with monthly hospital visits. As you may not know, "study drug" means that half the subjects will get the actual drug and the other half will receive a placebo. This is how they are able to get a fair result to report to the FDA.

After much prayer, and a few weeks of administering these injections, we were confident that our son had received the real thing. His progress was amazing. Gradually, over the next year, he became better. I had to continue giving him his shots and pills, and still do, but there are so many people who have no idea he has arthritis.

Now you may be wondering, "What about Mike?"

Although, our son (now 18) does not speak as often about him, I am sure he has not forgotten the spark that Michael Jordan ignited within him 15 years ago. It would be wonderful if Michael could meet this wonderful young man.

My son has never forgotten what the outcome of his illness could have been. Brave is not a strong enough word to describe him. He faced this head on, despite being very young, with the determination and dedication I have only seen in few adults.

His work ethic is remarkable. He works out on a daily basis, knowing this is the key to keeping his joints in shape, to achieve goals he has set for himself.

He has planned to go into special education, working with children with learning disabilities.

Later, he will be pursuing the administration side of education. He is looking forward to attending the University of Idaho in June, to get a jump on his studies.

He will be a great asset to our Walla Walla community, after graduation and his basketball career. He is working towards playing semi-professionally overseas, or better yet playing in the NBA (like Mike).

There has been great support for our son throughout the community. He has been fortunate to have great doctors through Children's Hospital and the Walla Walla Clinic. He has had the best coaches in town (Mike Braddock, Darcy Weisner, John Golden and his Uncle Jules).

He has had great mentors through these coaches, as well as, his teachers and the staff (at Blue Ridge, Garrison, Pioneer and Wa-Hi, which are too many to name them all).

He has attended a local church (Solid Rock Christian Fellowship), where he has been supported through prayers by friends and family.

My son is a very humble man. He does not boast of his accomplishments. On the contrary, he finds it hard to respond to a lot of the praises he gets. He feels blessed, even against the odds given to him at an early age.

He was reminded by us, a long time ago, that the Bible says, "To whom much is given, much is required."

He has given of his time to help others in this community. He has spoken to youth on the basketball courts, throughout Walla Walla, of the importance of teamwork and practicing. But most of all staying in school and being a good student.

I encourage each person who reads this, if you have a dream, don't let it die without a fight. If you do nothing to achieve this, it is only a soon-forgotten thought.

If you set goals and work hard to achieve them you will be amazed at what you are able to do, with a good heart and a positive attitude. My son was not going to settle for a wheelchair. He did not settle on a goal of just walking or running. Jumping was not even enough for him. His goal was to fly to the hoop (like Mike).

If you did not already figure it out, my son, my friend, my hero is Gary Winston, Jr.

Thank you all for your love, acceptance and the support you have extended Gary throughout this journey. As he soon will leave us and begin the next chapter in his life, remember you were a part of any success he has obtained here. Your cheers, smiles and encouragement kept him going at times when his body wanted to fail him. It is because of you that I know Gary will continue to support this community in the future.

Pray for his safety as he moves on and don't forget, DARE TO DREAM... and DREAM BIG!

Thank you Lord, for allowing me the privilege of being Gary's Mom, what a blessed and wonderful time this has been.

Go ahead, Fly Baby!

We invite you all to Idaho. Go Vandals!

Dorothy Winston is the mother of Wa-Hi student-athlete Gary Winston, Jr., who helped the Blue Devils win the Washington State Class 4A fourth-place trophy last weekend in Tacoma. Gary Winston, Jr., will continue his basketball career at the University of Idaho next fall.

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