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Va. 4th grader fights brain tumor with wishes, selflessness

Friday - 12/7/2012, 4:12pm  ET

gabriella_mug.jpg
Gabriella Miller (Courtesy Miller family)

A new life

WTOP's Neal Augenstein

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The size of walnut

WTOP's Neal Augenstein

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A bright star

WTOP's Neal Augenstein

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Neal Augenstein, wtop.com

LEESBURG, Va. - A determined Loudoun County girl, recently diagnosed with an inoperable tumor on her brain stem, is leading an effort to help other children facing life-threatening illnesses.

Three weeks ago, Gabriella Miller, a fourth-grader at Loudoun County Day School who is "almost 10," had been complaining of headaches and blurry vision.

"It was what no parent wants to hear," says father Mark Miller, sitting with his daughter in his lap in the family's living room. "It's a brain tumor."

"It became a whole new life. That was the day our life started differently," says Miller.

Gabriella is undergoing arduous radiation and chemotherapy at Children's National Medical Center.

"My head's going to be hurting because I've been tired all day," says Gabriella.

When I observed that grueling physical stress didn't seem very fun for a girl who loves dancing and "watching Disney Channel," Gabriella responded with an understated "eh."

The Millers say a social worker at Children's told them Gabriella qualified for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Gabriella chose a trip to Paris, and hopes to go after her chemo and radiation ends in January.

"I do want to go see the Eiffel Tower. I want to see the Mona Lisa."

And then Gabriella's focus partially shifted from her recovery efforts to helping other children.

Soon after Thanksgiving, Gabriella's mother Ellyn saw a full-page Macy's store ad.

Holding up the issue of The Washington Post, Ellyn displayed Macy's promise the company would donate $1 million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation if the company received one million letters to Santa Claus before Christmas.

Gabriella set a goal of contributing 10,000 letters.

Her selfless act quickly drew online attention and local support.

American Idol winner Taylor Hicks blogged and tweeted about Gabriella, asking his fans to participate in her effort.

The family along with family friend and marketing professional Christina Croll, set up a Facebook page entitled "Make A Wish with Gabriella."

Emails from strangers around the world are asking what they can do to help.

"I'm really happy about that," says Gabriella. "It's a blessing."

And Loudoun County Day School will host a letter-writing event Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon at 20600 Red Cedar Dr., in Leesburg.

A Smashing Time
Mark Miller recalls searching for a way to provide a positive outlook for his daughter.

The answer came in the size and shape of a walnut.

"That's about the size of my tumor," says Gabriella.

Father and daughter searched several stores, looking for a package of walnuts in the shell.

"It was just before we started radiation," says Miller. "We went outside on the deck, and said 'we're going to smash these,' to give her a mental boost and to visualize what radiation would do to her tumor."

"This is our life, and we are not spectators," adds Ellyn Miller, who insists Gabriella and her younger brother Jake join the daily "smashing walnuts" routine - with pots, pans, mallets, fists, even shoes - to remind the children they are not powerless.

As she weathers treatment, testing, and probing from her "nine different -ologists," Gabriella gets strength from the promise of her trip to Paris.

"You might have a bad day today but there's always a bright star to look forward to tomorrow," Gabriella says.

Her parents are thankful for the hope Make-A-Wish Foundation is offering their daughter.

"If we can help raise some money so other kids can have that same feeling, I think that's absolutely amazing," says Ellyn Miller.

"It's not about Christmas, it's about what can we do to help kids who don't feel so good to feel better."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)