Shortly after Christina Ricks was born, her mother fell into a coma. And the little girl was so plagued by illness that she had tubes sticking out of almost every inch of her body, from head to toe.
A church missionary assigned to help out the family had brought the pregnant mother to the hospital. Soon she was named the child's legal guardian, responsible for every decision about the care of an infant whose mother was too sick to look after her.
"I had said I'd never take a kid in," said Brenda Winston, a married Meech Street resident with back problems and a 14-year-old son of her own.
But it wasn't long before Winston was signing off on every consent form regarding Christina's medical care at Kaleida Health's Children's Hospital, including more than three dozen surgeries. And it wasn't long before she brought her husband and son in to see the baby girl that would be the new member of the family.
The Winstons chose a hard road, to care for a child born with DiGeorge syndrome and to embrace her as a blessing through every trauma and dramatic turn that has threatened to end the girl's young life.
"It's a long story for Christina," Winston said.
Better than a short one. Now 7, Christina was once given only one week to live and mistakenly garbed in a death robe made for deceased hospital infants.
Now, from her living room couch, Christina points to her hospital picture as a newborn.
"Look at my baby," she says in a happy, exuberant voice, her speech patterns still forming.
"Sick," she adds.
DiGeorge syndrome is a rare disorder associated with certain genetic defects that result in a child born with a collection of severe heart, lung, gland and immune system problems.
Even now, Winston said, interns line up at the hospital and ask if they can listen to Christina's unusual heart murmur.
Not long ago, a child with such severe impairments had no chance of survival. But Christina has had the benefit of medical advances, a caring team of health professionals and a family that has sacrificed much for the joy of raising a child.
"The real hero here, in my view, is Ms. Winston," said Dr. Robert Kaplan, one of Christina's private pediatricians with Buffalo Pediatric Associates. "She loves Christina, and she's wonderful with her, but she also has tremendous judgment."
Without her, he said, it's unlikely Christina would have made it this far.
In fact, the entire Winston family has played a role in the girl's success, including Winston's son, Anderson. Though only an adolescent when Christina first came home to live with the family, he supervised his sister's feeding, medication and changing. He handled her physical therapy exercises, checked her heart monitors and once gave her CPR.
He was so good, Winston said, that the employees at Children's Hospital brought him in to work with other children and encouraged him to pursue child therapy as a career. Now, Winston said, he's in college in California doing just that.
Winston's husband, also named Anderson, died of cancer last fall, leaving her as Christina's primary caregiver. Her support has resulted in a happy and well-adjusted girl who loves school, is quick to laugh and eager to dish out hugs or hold your hand.
This despite Christina's experience with dozens of emergency hospital admissions, 39 surgeries, handfuls of medication each day and countless appointments with diligent specialists at Children's who work together to make sure she stays out of harm's way.
Most recently, she was admitted from September through January for pneumonia and complications related to the stress on her heart. She was sent home with a laptop ventilator -- a portable breathing machine that gives Christina the oxygen she needs while keeping her from having to live in a hospital.
Though a troubled immune system has prevented Christina from going back to School 84 this year, Winston believes it's only a matter of time before her daughter's health will rebound.
"God let me know," she said, "that no matter what . . . she's going to live."