She loves art, dancing and playing with her twin brothers. She loves going to school and is happiest when she can actually be in class with her second-grade friends. And although she had lost her hair, she entered and won a local pageant, being named Little Miss Adams County Fair, because she wanted to help raise awareness about childhood cancer.
Only 7-years-old, Sierra Miller has already made a difference in the lives of those who love her and those who have cared for her since her leukemia diagnosis two years ago.
“She is a very brave little girl and always has been,” says Kris Gannon, a Child Life Specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, who first met Sierra as an inpatient and still works with her when she visits the Hematology/Oncology Clinic for her monthly appointments. “I help provide support and education to patients. Sierra is always happy to help me with other patients. She’s very social and just a happy and wonderful little girl.”
Her “favorite” nurse, Lindsay Steck, RN, agrees.
“When I am working and Sierra is scheduled to be here, everyone knows she is my patient,” says Steck, a Washington University infusion staff nurse in the clinic. “If I’m here, I’m her nurse. She’s so fun and always keeps things light and funny. She’s just always positive.”
With her IV pole that she’s named Miss Pickles, Sierra moves around the Hematology/Oncology Clinic as much as she can between treatments, making art projects with Gannon or chatting with her mom, who is always right by her side.
“This is our life now,” says Amanda Liesen-Miller, Sierra’s mom, who along with her husband, Toby, also has twin 5-year-old boys, Bryce and Logan. “It’s our normal since we got the call two years ago.”
Life suddenly changed for the Quincy, Ill., family of five when Sierra was just entering kindergarten and was stung by a wasp, causing her lymph system to flare up. After multiple tests at home to see if she had an infection or an allergic reaction and even a leukemia screening, all of which turned up negative, the family was sent to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Liesen-Miller says.
“My grandfather had lymphoma, and I just thought there was something more happening,” Liesen-Miller says. “We went to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where they did more lab work, and we were told leukemia was the last thing on the list, but they did decide to do a bone marrow test before we went home.”
On Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, Liesen-Miller got the call from Fred Huang, MD, at St. Louis Children’s Hospital that the bone marrow test confirmed Sierra had leukemia.
“I was in shock,” she says. “I had 3-year-old twins and now a 5-year-old with cancer.”
The family received detailed instructions from Dr. Huang and were told to come back to the hospital the following Monday and be prepared to stay. Thanks to a lot of family support and help, the family began what Liesen-Miller now calls their “really long journey.” During this journey, they have been grateful for the care from Dr. Huang, Dr. Alex Ngwube, Sierra’s primary oncologist who makes her laugh, and Dr. David Wilson, who makes Sierra happy because he seems to be the one working when she gets to go home, as well as countless other caregivers.
Sierra was in the hospital for eight days and received intensive chemotherapy at home for the first month after her diagnosis. After another bone marrow test, they learned she was in remission.
For nine months, Sierra, her mom, and sometimes other family members made the five-hour round-trip to St. Louis Children’s Hospital every week to visit the Hematology/Oncology Clinic for treatments and evaluations. She still comes once a month for appointments that last about four hours each time.
“We had never been to St. Louis Children’s Hospital before this happened,” Liesen-Miller says. “The staff has been so friendly, and they all work so well with the kids. They really listen and they make sure it is fun, as fun as it can be.”
Since being a patient, Sierra has told her mom she’d like to be a Child Life Specialist so she can help other kids with cancer, and she and her family continue to help others.
“We’ve gotten to know so many other families through the hospital and at home who have children with leukemia,” Liesen-Miller says. “We now share information with others through Facebook and provide support to one another because we really understand one another.”
Sierra is one of the honored “Ride for a Child” pediatric cancer patients for Pedal the Cause this year. The annual bicycle race held in early October raises money for cancer research in St. Louis. All the proceeds go to St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Siteman Cancer Center.