Jim and Eileen Winski of Westmont have their own personal angel.
Their daughter, Tammi, made them a Christmas ornament in 1971 when the family was living in Conemaugh and she was attending kindergarten at Conemaugh Valley Elementary. It has appeared on their tree every year since.
Tammi was 5 years old when she put together the ornament, which features a small aluminum pie pan with pictures of an angel and the Wise Men pasted inside. She was 7 years old when she died.
Her mother, Eileen, said the story began in 1967, when Tammi was 17 months old and crying all the time and holding her stomach.
While in the hospital having tests done, Tammi could no longer stand in her crib because she was paralyzed.
“They did a spinal tap, said it wasn’t good and sent us to Pittsburgh on a Monday,” Eileen Winski said. “On Tuesday, they operated and found a tumor wrapped around her spinal cord and removed it.”
Ten days later, Tammi had another operation because the neuroblastoma was so huge it had grown around to the front of her tiny body.
“She got an infection and had to be in isolation, which was rough,” Winski said. “They never guaranteed it would work, but a week later she was standing up in her crib and got back the use of her legs.”
When Tammi was in isolation, Winski would leave a crying baby at 11 p.m., drive home to Johnstown and leave for Pittsburgh at 6 the next morning.
“It was rough, emotionally and financially,” Winski said. “I’m thankful my mom and dad watched our daughter, Cheri, who was 4.”
The Winskis spent the biggest part of that summer at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh as Tammi underwent radiation treatments.
“They wouldn’t let me go in with her, and she wouldn’t lie still, so she had to be medicated,” Winski said. “They had to give her morphine, and she had radiation five days a week for six weeks.”
Tammi did well after the treatments and spent five years living a normal childhood.
It was Dec. 17, 1972, when a lump was discovered on Tammi’s leg and another trip was made to Pittsburgh.
“The doctors told us to take her home and have a good Christmas because it would be her last,” Winski said in a voice choked with tears. “It had metastasized everywhere in her body.”
Tammi was a big fan of the Osmonds, and when the popular singing group performed in Pittsburgh, Jim Winski carried his daughter to their seats for the concert.
Tammi did well with radiation and chemo, but on Oct. 27, 1973, she woke up crying and was very sick.
“Jim was at work at the mill, but Tammi said ‘I want my dad and I want him right now,’ so I called him at work,” Winski said.
Tammi was taken to Pittsburgh by ambulance, but passed away before she reached Children’s Hospital.
“I knew she had died when she let go of my hand,” Winski said.
Even though Tammi had her older sister Cheri, who was 10 when Tammi died, the one thing she had wanted more than anything was another brother or sister.
Winski was pregnant but miscarried in June 1973, then was two months pregnant when Tammi died.
Tammi and her younger brother, Jim Jr., never got to meet.
“Tammi always wanted to be a bride, and she was upset because Cheri got to go first, and she wanted to do it, too,” Winski said. “In the Catholic church, a child usually has to be 8 years old to have first Communion, but they allowed her to have it at 7 at Sacred Heart in Conemaugh. She was buried in her white dress.”
Winski said Tammi was a very spirited little girl.
“Nothing got her down,” she said. We never have a Christmas without her ornament. It’s the most precious item and memory we possess.”
The Winskis also have a pencil sketch and oil portrait of Tammi made from her school picture, and Eileen Winski wears a locket with Tammi’s picture done in acid etching.
Through the years, the Winskis have not been without further heartache.
“I never thought we would bury a child,” Jim Winski said. “When we lived in Conemaugh and I walked to work, I would pray she would get better.”
“My biggest fear was losing another child,” Eileen Winski added.
“It hurt when we would see children her age and think Tammi would have been doing that, like at graduation.”
Their mother said Tammi and Cheri were inseparable, and it was very hard on Cheri to lose her younger sister.
“Cheri always keeps things in, where Jim Jr. lets them out,” Eileen Winski said. “He was always sensitive, even though he never knew his sister.
“They’re two of the best kids in the world. They both think it’s a good idea to have the ornament up every year.”
Cheri lives in Jerome with her husband, Mark Berkey, and three dogs, one cat, a macaw and a cockatoo.
“She’s a real animal lover,” Eileen Winski said. “I call her Mrs. Doolittle. One time she found some baby raccoons and fed them until they were big enough to leave.”
Cheri Berkey worked as a surgical tech at Memorial, but is now an orthopedic sales representative.
Jim Winski Jr. lives in Westmont with his wife, Brenda, and their Jack Russell terrier.
He started out at Memorial Medical Center cutting grass in the summers and now works in information systems.
Jim Winski started out as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel, later becoming a supervisor.
He worked for Bethlehem for 31 years, until the plant closed in 1992.
He then worked for Republic Steel and at Holiday Inn after he retired.
Eileen Winski worked for the cancer registry at Memorial Medical Center, starting in 1987.
She worked with statistics for 21 years rather than dealing with people.
Every week during football season, the Winskis celebrate Steeler Sunday at their home, with Eileen Winski doing the cooking and the whole family attending.
The Winskis also enjoy attending oldies concerts in Pittsburgh and at Arcadia Theater in Windber as well as taking various trips.