Girl dies less than a year after cancer diagnosis

By Kim Walter

Just two weeks after receiving her honorary degree from Shenandoah University, 10-year-old Gabriella Miller has passed away.

With no other options, Gabriella was put on hospice care Oct. 22, and died peacefully at her home late Saturday night.

Gabriella, a fifth grader at Loudoun Country Day School, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor less than a year ago. Since then, she and her family have worked to raise awareness and funds for research of pediatric cancer.

The Millers started a Facebook page to keep friends and family up-to-date on her progress, as well as the numerous events Gabriella attended to advocate for the Smashing Walnuts Foundation. The organization’s name references the size of the little girl’s tumor when she was diagnosed.

Gabriella would often symbolically smash walnuts, much like she wanted to smash and get rid of childhood cancer.

Over the past year, Gabriella was able to see three wishes become reality — she visited Paris, became a published author, and most recently became the youngest alumna of Shenandoah University.

According to Gabriella’s commencement address on Oct. 11, the day spent in class, meeting students and taking quizzes was something she would never forget.

She urged listeners to never take education for granted. While she admitted that she wasn’t a morning person, she said the opportunity to learn and go to school was something that got her going every day.

Early last week, Gabriella’s condition quickly spiraled downward, according to the “Make A Wish with Gabriella” Facebook page managed by her parents and close family and friends.

In the days since her passing, prayers, thoughts and support have flooded the Facebook page, which now has more than 21,000 likes.

The family requested that Gabriella’s fans make colorful paper flowers for her memorial service. After the service, the flowers will go to the families of children with cancer and oncology nurses and doctors who care for children fighting cancer.

Flowers will be accepted until Friday and may be dropped off or mailed to 20899 McIntosh Place, Leesburg, Va, 20175.

Shenandoah University students decided to make a bunch of flowers as well. Additionally, university president Tracy Fitszimmons held a memorial service on campus, and asked students, faculty and staff to write thoughts in a journal for the Millers.

Fitszimmons will deliver the flowers and journal, and speak during Gabriella’s memorial service.

Last week, after Gabriella was placed on hospice care, Fitszimmons was able to visit her and her family. The little girl wanted to turn in a class assignment she had received during her day at Shenandoah, which was due Friday.

Fitszimmons said Gabriella’s strength, passion for learning and inspiring words have motivated a great number of people to be aware of childhood cancer, and also do something about it.

“Celebrating Gabriella’s life and grieving her death are simply not enough,” she said Tuesday. “The message of her 10 short years was action, to spring into action. If you care about something, then don’t wait for someone else to make a difference.”

The SU student body has done just that, according to Fitszimmons. Besides the flowers and writings, students have begun actively raising money to benefit childhood cancer research.

There are also plans for a First Year Seminar award, which would go to the student who “best reflects Gabriella’s passion for learning.”

“Here at Shenandoah, we want our students to be locally connected and globally aware,” Fitszimmons said. “I think our involvement in Gabriella’s journey is a perfect example. Here is this young girl, from an area close by, fighting an illness that is a problem across the world.”

Fitszimmons added that she would like to have one day a year during which young people fighting cancer could come to SU’s campus and have experiences similar to Gabriella’s.

In a Facebook post by Gabriella’s mother, Ellyn, she described the dark days before and after her daughter’s passing. She ended it with a plea.

“So now, as our family grapples with the loss of our Sweet G, we need to know that she has not died in vain. Tissue donation will assist with study on this disease. Our Smashing Walnuts Foundation will certainly help with bringing about childhood cancer awareness & raising money to fund grants for research,” she wrote. “Now I ask you, on behalf of our Sweet G, please help. Do something, anything, in honor of Gabriella so that other children, their family & their friends don’t have to go through what we have & are going through.”

Gabriella’s memorial service will take place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Heritage High School in Leesburg. It is open to the public.

For more information on how join in the fight against childhood cancer, go to the Make A Wish with Gabriella Facebook page, or visit smashingwalnuts.org.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com