The day after Christmas is usually spent recovering from the hustle and bustle of Christmas Day, but for the Miller family, it’s the day that changed their lives forever.
“It was just a normal day and everything was great,” said Ash Miller. “But a few minutes later, River Lee is fighting for her life.”
Teresa Miller recalls that day very vividly. She was in the shower around 9:30 in the morning when her husband ran in and said they needed to call 911 for their 6-year-old daughter, River Lee.
“She was screaming that her head hurt and she wanted water and she was all red,” Teresa said. “She was laying on the bed and started to lose consciousness … we had no idea what was going on.”
Luckily, their home is located on Airport Road, which allowed firefighters and EMTs to get there quickly. The family was rushed to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, where a CT scan discovered River Lee had a tumor and an arteriovenous malformation – an abnormal cluster of blood vessels in the brain – that had ruptured. AVM only effects 1 percent of the population and it's unknown what causes it.
FWBMC wasn’t equipped to handle her case so she was life-flighted to Sacred Heart in Pensacola and rushed into emergency surgery. The surgeon was able to remove all of the AVM and the tumor. Afterwards, River Lee was in a coma for nine days. When she woke up, a cerebral angiogram still showed tumor cells, but they were benign.
“We don’t know which came first (the tumor or AVM) or if they had any interaction,” Teresa said. “A lot of people with AVM can go their whole lives and it doesn’t affect them.”
“When they found out what it was, the neurosurgeon said her age is what saved her life,” Ash said. “If she was an adult, she wouldn’t have made it.”
For the first few weeks, the Miller family wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Slowly, River Lee started to respond with her eyes, hands and feet. On Jan. 23 , River Lee was transferred to Brooks Rehab Center in Jacksonville and after two and a half weeks, was able to go home.
When asked how excited she was to be home, River reaches her hands as high as she can and does a happy dance.
“She’s so much happier at home and is doing so much more than she was in rehab or at the hospital,” Teresa said. “She’s improving more and more every day. She’s our superhero, that’s what we tell her.”
The 6-year-old is determined to get back to being a normal little girl. River Lee is now able to walk, communicate and is a master at memory games. Teresa said River Lee tries to verbalize as much as possible and will draw pictures or use sign language as well.
“She’s slowly finding her voice again,” she said. “Some people with this injury can start talking within a week and some people, it takes them 4 months. But she’s walking, talking, eating, doing all the things she normally would do, she’s just re-learning how to do all of them, that’s all.”
In addition to continuing physical, occupational and speech therapy, River Lee will have another cerebral angiogram in two to three months to make sure there’s nothing else the doctors need to do. From there, she will have CT scans done every six month until she turns 16, and then once a year for 10 more years.
The Millers won’t know if there will be any long-term effects for another year-and-a-half, due to River Lee’s age, but both parents are optimistic that she won’t have any.
“Nothing is out of the question with the power of prayer and the healing she’s already been through,” Teresa said. “I feel like her recovery has to do with a lot of her own determination and her attitude as well as a lot of prayers and healing from the Lord for us and for her.
“You don’t give up, do you bug?” Teresa said as she fist-bumped River Lee. “Why don’t we give up? Because we’re tough right? Yeah.”
“She’s strong and she fights hard,” said Ash. “It definitely puts things in perspective. Things that mattered a couple of months ago might not matter so much anymore.”
In addition to coming to her house every day after school to make sure she doesn’t get behind, River Lee’s kindergarten teacher at Destin Elementary, Anna Nordlander, set up a GoFundMe for the Millers, and helped organize a “Rally for River Lee” at Boshamps Oyster House on Feb. 26. For more information about the event or to donate to the Miller family, check out the “Rally for River Lee” event on Facebook or go to gf.me/u/qx857v
The Millers hope they can spread awareness about AVM and help others who have had similar experiences.
"It’s definitely something to be educated about and get the word out about," Teresa said. "Some people go their whole lives and it doesn’t affect them but then there are cases like this and you don’t see it coming."