MELBOURNE, FL. – Over Memorial Day weekend, the mother and stepfather of second grader Vivian Sleeth noticed that she was looking sideways while watching television.
“When we asked her, she said she was seeing double,” recalls her mother, Brittany Sleeth, who works as a special education teacher at Palm Bay Magnet High.
After that, a simple visit to the pediatrician in June to have Viv’s eyes checked developed into a shocking, unexpected series of medical tests and exams, including an MRI of the brain.
Viv – an energetic 7-year-old who loves dinosaurs – has been diagnosed with DIPG, a rare end-stage pediatric brainstem tumor. Doctors gave her only six to nine months to live, Brittany said.
“What do you do when they say your child has terminal cancer?” she asked, struggling to keep her composure.
This week, Viv and her family are traveling to Washington, DC so she can undergo experimental sonodynamic therapy. Viv had to shave her head to get this trial ultrasound procedure — the thought of it made her “very nervous,” Brittany said.
So on Sunday afternoon, her family held a “Brave the Shave” event in the driveway of their Rockledge home to lift Viv’s spirits.
Standing on a pink step stool, Viv carefully wielded an electric clipper. She helped shave the heads of more than a dozen of her supporters, including relatives and fellow children.
Then, for the grand finale, Viv sat in the chair in a blue salon cape while the contestants took turns clipping their blonde, shoulder-length hair. Adults bowed their heads and said the Lord’s Prayer beforehand, and some wept in the crowd of about 40 well-wishers.
But Viv sat quietly with her hands folded in her lap, chewing gum and talking to her crying mother. Her grandmother, Vicki Morton, started shaving her head with clippers just as Sia’s “Unstoppable” blared through the speakers.
Then, after her shave, Viv ran her hands over her fluffy bald head, donned a blue ball cap decorated with embroidered dinosaurs, and shared hugs with her little friends.
“She’s amazing. She’s a fighter. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She just has such a positive vibe,” said Adrienne Schwab, Principal of Viera Elementary School, standing near the head shaving station.
“And she’s just a little spark of energy and light in everything she does,” Schwab said.
Only about 300 children in the US are diagnosed with DIPG (diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma) each year, reports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. DIPG is a highly aggressive, difficult-to-treat brainstem tumor that is typically diagnosed in children aged 5 to 9 years.
The survival rate for DIPG is very low, and there is no cure, reports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Surgery is rarely an option, and treatments include radiation and experimental chemotherapy.
“I just want the world to know about DIPG. You deserve a cure,” Brittany told the crowd, crying and stroking Viv’s hair before her head was shaved.
“My daughter deserves a chance,” Brittany said.
A GoFundMe page has raised more than $42,000 for the Sleeth family, and the Team Viv Facebook page has tracked their activity since her cancer diagnosis.
A contingent of Rockledge police officers and firefighters attended Sunday’s event, as did Titusville Police Chief John Lau. Last month, he sworn in Viv as the Titusville Junior Police Officer during an on-field ceremony at the Palm Bay High-Titusville High football game.
Before she lost her hair on Sunday, Viv was in her front yard stroking the furry muzzle of the Titusville Police Department’s new K9, a 4-month-old Belgian Malinois/Dutch Shepherd mix.
“He will be completing basic obedience training over the next few months and then will begin his 740-hour K9 training with his new handler,” Titusville Police Department spokeswoman Amy Matthews said.
“We asked Vivian to name the new pup,” Matthews said.
So far, Viv’s top names for K9 seem to be Copper and Rex — short for Tyrannosaurus Rex, Matthews said. The Titusville Police Department will make a formal announcement in a month or two.
Despite her grim prognosis, Viv remains fit and healthy after undergoing radiation treatment from June through September at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
On October 22, days before Viv underwent a series of medical tests in Washington, DC, the family visited Niagara Falls. They met a Canadian family while hiking a nature trail outside of Buffalo, New York.
“They say, ‘What brought you here?’ So I said, ‘Well, my daughter is pretty sick.’ And Viv says, ‘Mom, I’m not sick – I just have a brain tumour!’ And she’s just walking around,” Brittany recalled.
“So everyone’s flabbergasted,” she said.
Brittany followed Sunday and got her head shaved after Viv, losing both of her long braids. Afterwards, she tearfully asked the participants to pray for her daughter’s health.
“I just wanted to say a sincere thank you. ‘Cause I’m fighting Really fight. And I’m not as strong as you think I am. I’m not,” Brittany told the crowd.
“Thank you so much for being here. And just keep praying. All I ask is just keep praying. Because that’s what we need,” she said.
“We hope for science.”