Back to Kids

JBLM girl ready to dance hula in paradise

Make-a-Wish Foundation grants sick 4-year-old a tropical wish

Riley Miller, 4, center, and sister Sydney,7, left, perform with the Kaimola Polynesian Dance troupe Sunday during a luau held in the family’s honor at Hillside Elementary School on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. /Melanie Casey

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

It started with a simple question.

"If you had a wish," Leah Miller recalled asking her 4-year-old daughter, Riley, early this summer, "anything in the world, what would it be?" Riley's answer was simple: "Go to ‘Hawati' and be a hula hoop dancer."

Miller, who was already involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and had worked to help three other children receive their wishes, said it was then that it dawned on her to ask for a wish for her own chronically ill child. Prior to her volunteer work with Make-a-Wish, she assumed the program was only for terminally ill children. But she learned that the foundation also grants wishes to children diagnosed with other life-threatening conditions.

Riley was born with a subglottic hemangioma - a growth in the airway that impaired her ability to breathe. Her first surgery was at 2 months old; she has since endured more than 30 operations, including a tracheotomy and laryngotracheal reconstruction. This procedure, completed last year at Wilford Hall Medical Center on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, involved "expanding the windpipe with her rib cartilage to allow her to breathe without a tracheotomy," said Riley's surgeon, pediatric otolaryngologist Dr. (Air Force Lt. Col.) Mark Boston. Though her prognosis is no longer grim, she faces a lifetime of doctor's visits, medication and more surgeries.

On July 28, while Riley was in Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord recuperating from her most recent operation, Miller learned Make-a-Wish would send the whole family - including Riley's siblings: Hayley, 16; Whitney, 15; Sydney, 7; and Cody, 6 - to Hawaii this fall.

To prepare the family for its Hawaiian adventure, Make-a-Wish volunteers Janice and Paul Woolson planned and organized a luau-themed send-off party, which was held Sept. 26 at Hillside Elementary School near the Millers' home on JBLM. More than 50 friends and neighbors came to see the family off in style. The Kaimola Polynesian Dance troupe, led by Nancy Sweezey, Hawaii native and the military lead pay technician with the JBLM Defense Military Pay Office, performed several traditional dances. Clad in a traditional tea-leaf skirt and coconut bra, Riley was on center stage for many of them.

On Tuesday, the Millers left for a five-night, six-day trip to Waikiki, Hawaii. While there, they will attend an authentic Hawaiian luau and have the opportunity to swim with dolphins. The Make-a-Wish Foundation is covering all costs of the trip, including meals and spending money for souvenirs. The organization even provided the family with new luggage.

"It will give her time to be a normal kid who doesn't have to think about being sick or doctors," Miller said of the vacation, which is the first the family has ever taken together.

"It will definitely do us all good to get a vacation," said Riley's father, Staff Sgt. Jason Miller, a military policeman with the 51st MP Detachment, 504th MP Battalion, 42nd MP Brigade. "But what I'm most looking forward to is to see Riley's wish fulfilled and see the look on her face when she swims with the dolphins."  He stressed that the "the support of the unit from the brigade down has been awesome. (This unit) has set the bar."

"She's such a great kid, a really fun kid," said Sandra Mendez, Riley's respite care provider. "She's gone through so much. Little things that people take for granted, like just breathing or running around. I hope this will start a new page for her."

Riley has lingering chronic medical issues including upper and lower airway disease, adrenal insufficiency, subglottic stenosis, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. She sees a doctor at least once a month for one of her myriad health issues and requires breathing treatments a few times a day along with a feeding tube at night to ensure she receives enough nutrients. Since she couldn't eat solid food for much of her life, getting enough calories in her is a constant battle, Miller said. Her immune system is also compromised due to steroid use.  A recent trip to Great Wolf Lodge put Riley in the hospital with pneumonia, Miller said, "but for her it was worth it." She "doesn't like to be slowed down ... the hardest thing for her is that she can't keep up with everyone else," said Miller, who notes that Riley wants to play soccer.  "I don't treat her as a disabled child. She just requires some extra TLC."

Read next close

News Articles

Fisher House opens doors

comments powered by Disqus