By Lee Noles
Sarah Porter is like many other 11-year-olds. She has a soft spot for animals, loves spaghetti and gets lost in the “Serafina” book series.
But there is one major difference.
Since birth, Porter has combated a devastating illness known as hemangiomas. The benign tumors occur in infancy, and required Porter to endure a combined 27 surgeries and procedures to alleviate the enlarged blood vessels from obstructing her breathing or stealing her eyesight.
“It’s always nerve-racking,” Porter said of operations that can sometimes last for more than two hours. “It’s pretty scary.”
Porter’s mother, Kim, said the local organization Hometown Heroes has been a huge help by assisting the family with travel, food and lodging when they make their trips to New York for the procedures.
The group means so much to the Porter family that Sarah has found a way to give back by creating homemade Christmas ornaments and exchanging them for donations. Sarah has raised more than $24,000 for Hometown Heroes since she started six years ago.
“I know some of the kids (with Hometown Heroes) who had cancer,” Sarah Porter said. “I wanted to help them out anyway I could.”
Searching for answers
Kim and Chuck Porter knew right away something wasn’t right when Sarah was born. Little reddish marks covered much of their daughter’s face and neck, which Kim said resembled a large bruise. Kim quickly arranged appointments with an assortment of doctors and specialists, beginning a cycle of uncertainty. Her dermatologist recommended Sarah to an eye doctor. The eye doctor requested a visit to the family’s primary caregiver.
“I was giving each doctor a piece of paper when they asked if I had seen another doctor,” Kim said. “They would tell me to go see an eye doctor, and I would give them the paper to show them I had been to the eye doctor. Another doctor asked if we had seen the dermatologist, and I would give them the paper saying we had been there.”
Tests in Charlotte revealed Sarah had segmental hemangiomas, meaning the growths occur throughout the face and body and not just in a singular location. The initial diagnosis also revealed a benign tumor behind Sarah’s left eye and several lining the inside of her throat.
Some doctors felt aggressive surgery was best to deal with the problem, but the Porters knew they needed better options. Kim and Chuck researched the internet and medical journals and found Dr. Milton Waner, who Kim referred as the founding father in the treatment of hemangiomas and vascular formations. She called, but the receptionist said Dr. Waner was not taking new patients at that particular time. The receptionist recommended Kim send Sarah’s file to Waner’s office in New York City and he would look over the information. Three days later, Kim got a phone call from Waner wanting Sarah in New York as quickly as possible.
“You were thankful he was taking her on as a patient, but you are also concerned he was taking her on because you didn’t know how bad it could be,” Kim said. “It was a happy and sad moment.”
Hemangiomas can range from a tumor that would disappear on its own without much concern to ones which can result in blindness and obstruction of the airway if not treated. Sarah fell in the latter of the two categories.
“It was heartbreaking to say the least. Nobody wants their kids to go through that,” Kim said. “We know there are kids who go through a lot worse than Sarah, but it was your kid and your child and that makes it tough.”
Dr. Waner began killing the surface of the tumors by using a fraxel laser when Sarah was just 3 months old. He repeated the process for the next year and half after more grew in a matter of weeks. Warner then operated on Sarah by cutting into her face and removing the tumors and dead tissue that were on and underneath the skin. The family kept a blog of the trips they made to New York with their last coming in 2016 when Sarah was 9 years old.
“There is no punch card for how long she will have to go back and keep doing this,” Kim said of the possibility of the tumors returning.
Kim talked about the good she saw in people on their visits to New York, which sometimes lasted 10 days. There was the taxi driver who paid for their drive from the airport when he found out about Sarah’s story. A worker at a restaurant gave the family a free meal following one of Sarah’s surgeries. The blog allowed people to give their support during the Porter’s journey.
Even with the encouragements, the constant trips to New York took as many as three months of planning and the costs for eating out, airplane tickets and hotel rooms was daunting. Early on, Kim approached Hometown Heroes about sponsoring Sarah, and the nonprofit jumped at the chance by helping pay for taxis in New York, providing gift cards and moral support. According to the organization’s website, Hometown Heroes has helped more than 150 children with cancer and other illness and injuries and their families since its founding in 1998. The nonprofit focuses on helping children with cancer by holding fundraisers, which include a sugarplum cook-off and a motorcycle ride across North Carolina. Another is an annual Christmas tree sale. It was at the tree sale in 2012 when Sarah come up with the idea to support the group that supported her so much.
Sarah was sitting in the back of the family’s car on the way to school when she first revealed to her mom how she wanted to help people with Hometown Heroes.
At first, Kim thought Sarah wanted to bake cookies, but quickly realized her 5-yearold daughter had other plans. Sarah told her she wanted to create ornaments.
“It was a very proud moment, but it’s also how can I help her with this and move forward,” Kim said.
One of the first ornaments they created was a sphere split in half with a Christmas tree glued in the center. They sprinkled foam to resemble snow and lightly spray painted the globe white to give it a wintry sky before closing it together.
The Porters can’t recall how many ornaments they made the first year, but figured at least 283 were created this past holiday season. They usually have them ready from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve at the tree lots sponsored by Hometown Heroes. The creativity doesn’t stop with the tree ornament. Sarah and her 9-year-old sister, Riley, create a snowman drawn on either a plastic cover or a piece of wood. They also have ornaments similar to Christmas lights and another resembling a tree using corks.
“Every year we say we are going to keep count,” Sarah said. “But every year we always seem to forget the number we made.”
The past six years have seen their ornament operation grow from just Sarah and her mom to include Riley, their cousins who are in college, and two of Sarah’s good friends who Hometown Heroes sponsors. This past Christmas, Sarah raised more than $8,000.
When looking back on all that she has done with her ornaments, Sarah responds the way any 11-year-old probably would.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said.
Want to learn more?
The Porter’s Facebook page is Sarah’s Annual Ornament Fundraiser. Hometown Heroes website is www.Htheroes.org.