January 22, 2014

‘You got this’

Westwood students rally around friend with cancer

Misty Watson

— Nine-year-old Esme Miller tells her parents, “I’ve got this.”

When her parents would try to help her pull a shirt over her head, for example, because a tumor on her arm leaves her with limited mobility, she didn’t want the help. She replied, “I’ve got this.”

Through her battle with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, those three words have become her motto.

She wears a bracelet given to her by several of her classmates reminding her “You got this” that gives her encouragement and strength.

“I can do it myself,” said a quiet-spoken Esme, who says she hasn’t always been this independent.

Through the chemotherapy, which brings on fatigue, vomiting, nausea and days of lying in a bed at Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Esme smiles and reminds everyone she is fine. She doesn’t want to talk about the struggles. She nods her head when asked if she gets sick from the chemo. She shrugs when asked if she’s tired.

It helps, not only Esme, but her entire family, including twin sister Maslin, and close friends to know she has so many people supporting her. Her dad, Ty Miller, a professional photographer, runs a Facebook page and blog called Team Esme (facebook.com/GoTeamEsme and www.team-esme.com) where he updates Esme’s struggles with candor in writing and photography. The Facebook page has more than 6,700 likes, and updates get several hundred likes and comments.

The extreme support extends to the staff and students at Westwood Elementary School where on Wednesday more than 20 boys in three different fourth-grade classes shaved their heads to show their support for Esme, who has lost her hair during the chemo treatments.

“My dad told me that hair doesn’t really matter,” said Nathan Riggle, who’s in Amanda Swift’s class. “We’re trying to prove to Esme that hair doesn’t matter.”

Nathan said Esme is funny, and that he was sad for her when he found out she had cancer.

Blake Hammontree, also in Swift’s class, said he hoped that buzzing his hair off would make Esme happy.

“It was fun,” he said shortly after running his hands across the peach fuzz now on his head. “All my friends were doing it. We thought Esme would appreciate it. She’s nice and fun.”

Esme watched the boys, who sat in chairs lining the gym wall at Westwood. They had their hair buzzed free of charge by stylists from Tease Salon. Esme, Maslin and their friends giggled and recorded video on an iPad.

“It was funny because they were making faces,” she said. “It makes me feel happy.”

Dr. Jackie Miller, Esme’s mother, who works in the emergency room at Gordon Hospital, said the support shown by students and faculty at Westwood is amazing.

“I can’t believe they will do this for her,” she said.

Buzzing for Esme

The idea to have boys have their hair buzzed short to show support for Esme came when Maslin’s fourth-grade teacher, Paquita Bailey, joked about it. Several girls in the fourth grade had donated hair to Locks for Love, which uses the hair to make wigs for cancer patients.

“Some of my boys were asking what they could do,” Bailey said. “I joked, buzz their heads. ... Hair doesn’t define your beauty. The boys say, ‘Ours will grow back. Hers will take longer.’ It’s really neat to see the compassion, love and selflessness shown. You don’t see that from 9-year-old kids.”

Bailey said there was no pressure for the boys to have their heads buzzed, and she explained that just because some didn’t do it, or because their parents didn’t allow them to do it, didn’t mean they weren’t supporting Esme.

Swift, Esme’s teacher, also praised her students for showing Esme so much love as she battles cancer.

“I want them to grow up feeling this way for all people,” Swift said. “I want them to know how to behave in society and support people.”

Having their hair buzzed, or donating it to Locks of Love, is a good start, she said.

Wilson Tatum, who knows Maslin but doesn’t know Esme as well, said he liked Bailey’s idea, even if it was a joke.

Over Christmas break, several moms decided they would allow their sons to participate. Then the teachers got permission to have it done at school where Esme and her family could watch.

“If she doesn’t have hair, we’re not going to either,” said Wilson, who had blonde hair touching the tops of his ears before it was cut off.

Jackie Miller said she doesn’t know how she will ever truly be able to thank the women at Tease Salon, who have already donated their resources for a hair party for Esme and her friends. Their hair was styled and Esme’s was cut short in anticipation of losing it after the treatments started.

The diagnosis

Late last year, Esme was playing with some girls at her gymnastics class when she hit her arm.

“She had been complaining about a bump on the arm,” Ty Miller said. “We looked at it and could feel a lump underneath. We thought it would heal just like any other bump or bruise. After a few weeks of it not getting better, we started worrying a little. One time we could tell a difference, that it had gotten really big from a Friday to a Monday. That’s when we got really worried and scheduled the X-ray.”

Ty Miller said they knew immediately after the X-ray something wasn’t right. Instead of going back to school, Esme went through a series of tests.

“Since the moment we got the results on the X-ray, it has been like a whirlwind,” he said. “We had planned on them telling us it’s a hematoma, and it would take longer to heal.”

Instead, Esme was sent for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), then to Atlanta to Emory Hospital to see an orthopedic oncologist. Then there was a chest CT and the next day, a bone scan.

“We had about a week waiting on the biopsy results to come back,” Ty Miller said. “The worst thing you can do is get online and start looking up stuff. ... You can’t treat it until you know exactly what it is.”

Esme had her first chemo treatment on Dec. 27. Her treatment will follow a 29-week protocol, which is scheduled to end in the middle of July. She takes chemo in-patient and stays at the hospital several days after each treatment. She gets to return home between treatments, usually for two to three days at a time.

“We got home last night about midnight,” Ty Miller said on Wednesday. “We go back Friday for a repeat of what we just did. We’ll be there another five days. ... It’s hard enough to be there for three or four days.”

Esme will need surgery on her arm where the tumor is, and her doctors and family are working to plan those details.

Stronger together

Jackie Miller says, though no one wants to face cancer, “She’s a tough kid. We’re a strong family.”

Maslin said she was surprised to find out her sister had cancer.

“I never thought she would have cancer,” she said.

It’s hard for Maslin because while Esme is at Egleston, so are their parents, leaving her without a regular routine.

“Thank God for grandma (Carol Murphy),” Jackie Miller said, of her mom who cares for Maslin while the rest of the family is at the hospital.

Technology helps, though.

The family uses FaceTime, a video chat program, to communicate and see each other. Maslin and Esme talk to each other about what’s happening at school, with their friends and, of course, when they will get to all be home again together.

“She’s supportive,” Esme said of Maslin.

Jackie Miller said it helps Esme feel like she’s still part of the community, while attending school when she is able helps her keep as normal a life as possible. Teachers work with her in her home to keep her caught up.

“She amazes everybody,” Jackie Miller said. “She always has a smile on her face. A lot of times we have to keep asking her questions about what’s bothering her because she won’t complain about something hurting or something bothering her. ... Amazing to see how well she is taking this. If it was me, I would probably be crying the whole time and complaining about everything. I know it’s cliché to say she’s an inspiration, but she really is.”

Team Esme

Shortly after the diagnosis, Ty Miller was at Westwood one morning when he heard Maslin and her friends talking.

Someone said, “Team Esme.”

The name stuck.

“That’s the name we have adopted for everything,” he said. “Immediately they started talking about what can we do, what can we do. A lot of girls were getting their hair cut short in honor of Esme. A lot of them were donating their hair (to Locks for Love.) When you see something like that, it brings a tear to your eye to know that these kids care so much that they would do something like that.”