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North Hagerstown High athlete beats the odds and overcomes cancer

March 17, 2013|By BOB PARASILITI | bobp@herald-mail.com
  • Aaron Miller is a North Hagerstown High School student athlete recovering from leukemia. He cites his varsity letter and a wristband made with initials and jersey number among his cherished possessions.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Aaron Miller has three cherished possessions from his junior year at North Hagerstown High School, including a varsity letter for football.

He never played a down or snapped on a helmet as the Hubs rolled to a 9-2 record, including a berth in the Maryland Class 3A playoffs.

But he was a driving force behind the team’s success.

During the first week of practice in mid-August, the offensive and defensive lineman was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and given little chance of survival. 

But through a combination of positive thoughts, prayers, treatment, great genetics, a little luck and the drive to play football again, he not only remained involved with the Hubs, but inspired his teammates and an entire school.

Five months after his diagnosis, his leukemia was declared in remission. A month later, he played two minutes for the Hubs basketball team.

The second of his three cherished possessions is a torn, orange plastic bracelet inscribed with “A.M. 74” — his initials and football number — that sits on his kitchen table. The bracelets were worn by friends and teammates in his honor.

He ripped his bracelet off his wrist after finding out his leukemia was in remission, but he leaves it in sight to remember where he’s been.

And the third possession?

His life, complete with the chance to play football again.

This had been the year Miller anticipated for as long as he could remember.

Most everything he did was directed toward becoming an athlete, a high school student playing the game he loved.

Miller, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 255 pounds, spent his entire summer getting ready for preseason training.

He was a certified gym rat — lifting weights whenever he could, participating in football conditioning drills and playing summer league basketball — sometimes all in the same day.

But as training camp began, something wasn’t right.

“I wasn’t feeling well,” Miller said. “I had all the symptoms of strep throat. I went to the ER and the doctors told me that I had a virus and I would be better in a couple of days.”

Football practice began with a new training policy — heat acclimatization. Because of a rising trend of football-related heat strokes during hot summer practices, players were required to go through a gradual week of conditioning to prepare for workouts in pads.

Miller, 17, worked out and did everything required, but he was losing his edge. North line coach Greg Stains, who worked with Miller all summer, noticed he was slowing down and was unable to recover quickly between drills.

“Aaron’s work ethic is amazing,” Stains said. “He gives 110 percent all the time in practice. We had just finished practice and were about to put the pads on, and Aaron was having trouble getting back and forth. He was a step off.”

Stains became concerned and informed North head coach Dan Cunningham. They decided to give Miller some time off.

“The next day, he came back and still wasn’t feeling well,” Stains said. “He said it was bronchitis, but he didn’t look like the same Aaron. I could see it in his eyes. We gave him Friday off. I told him he should see a doctor because it seemed like more than bronchitis.

“On Saturday, he didn’t show up for our scrimmage.”

That was Aug. 18.


Diagnosis day

Rather than attend the scrimmage, Miller made a second trip to the ER for another opinion.

A test indicated his white blood count was elevated. Normally, the count should be around 14,000, but Miller’s stood at 81,000 and his spleen was enlarged.

“Because of the heat acclimatization, we weren’t allowed to start hitting yet,” Miller said. “It was a good thing because I could have lacerated my spleen. Heat acclimatization saved my life.”

The local doctors wanted Miller to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a closer look. Miller’s mother, Robin, planned to drive there, but doctors demanded he be taken by ambulance. In the car, the slightest bump could have ruptured his spleen.

“He was in bad shape when he showed up,” said Dr. Patrick Brown, a pediatric leukemia expert at Johns Hopkins’ Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He had a form of leukemia that was extremely aggressive and he was in very serious condition.

“He had high levels in his blood. He had trouble breathing and was bleeding into the whites of his eyes. We weren’t sure if he was going to make it.”

Brown said the leukemia was the product of one of Miller’s chromosomes breaking, flipping and refusing itself. That caused a mutation that allowed his blood cells to grow out of control.

Brown said the cancer, which is very rare in children and teenagers, is difficult to cure. Brown said normal white cell count is between 5,000 and 15,000. Miller’s was near 100,000.

Miller was told that he wouldn’t be playing sports and probably wouldn’t be attending school this year. 

“The doctors said that it was a good thing I came in because I only had four days to live,” Miller said. “I would have less time if I would have been smaller and not in shape to play football.”


A range of emotions

The reaction was obvious.

“I cried,” Miller said. “My mom, my sister and my aunt were all there and they started crying. I was scared. They wanted to start chemo immediately. My mom wanted to wait a little to see if I would get better, but they said I only had four days. I didn’t even think about it. I wanted to start immediately.”

And there was disbelief.

“I was just shocked,” said his mother, Robin Miller. “We thought we were taking him for a breathing treatment and we would be going home. It was devastating ... I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone.

“I wanted time to take it all in and to make sure this is what it was. I wanted to take him home and see if he would sleep it off. I’m the type that I wanted to read everything carefully before I signed anything and find out about the chemotherapy and the side effects. (The doctors) told me there wasn’t any time. Each minute we waited, his body was deteriorating more.”


Breaking the news

Miller was positive he would play football again. He was concerned, though, that his cancer might be an inconvenience to the team.

“When Aaron called me to tell me he had cancer, he didn’t want the team to know,” Cunningham said. “Still, I had to call all the coaches and tell them what was happening. Before I did, though, I cried.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I was scared. It made me think about my family, my kids, and gave me a new perspective on life.”

Cunningham began contacting his coaching staff to figure out how they were going to break the news to the team. One of the first calls was to Stains, who recently had lost a daughter to cancer.

“I got a call from Danny on Sunday,” Stains said. “He said, ‘Something is wrong with Aaron and I’m not sure how to tell you.’ He said that Aaron wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know what to say. So I called Aaron. He said to me, ‘Coach, I’m sorry that I’m not going to be able to play. You saved my life.’”

On Monday, the coaches broke the news to the team. There was shock in the room, but the reaction wasn’t what Cunningham expected.

“We brought the kids into a room 45 minutes before practice to tell them,” Cunningham said. “It was tough standing there with all those kids staring back at me. Aaron said things happen for a reason and maybe this was all it.

“When we told the kids, everything stopped. After a couple of minutes, some of the kids started raising their hands and asking questions. They wanted to know what it was and if he was going to be all right. Some went home after practice and started looking up what it was on the Internet.”

The Hubs made Miller’s plight their cause.

“We dedicated all our work to Aaron,” Hubs running back Isaiah Keyes said. “You just start thinking about how lucky you are. He’s staying strong, so we should, too.”

Miller still was a very big part of the team, even though he wasn’t present.

“Telling them it wasn’t bad, but it was reality,” Cunningham said. “We told the kids that you have a chance to go out there and play a game you love and here’s Aaron still over there trying to work hard to get out there with you. You have to take advantage of the time you have because your days in high school are numbered.

“The reality of it all, it took a lot of the ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ away from us. We told the kids that Aaron was working with a team of people to beat cancer. You guys need to work like a team.”

One of the gestures in support of Miller came in the form of a “74” sticker that was placed near the earhole of each player’s helmet.

“It was hard to forget him because he was always there whispering in our ears,” Cunningham said.


A battle in Baltimore

Meanwhile, Miller was in Baltimore starting his battle to take down a foe he never planned to tackle. He had to endure four rounds of chemotherapy, scheduled in 40-day sessions, with time off in between.

He responded to his treatment quickly and his white cell count improved steadily. His first round of chemo lasted 28 days, and he got through the last three in 25 days each.

“It wasn’t miraculous, but Aaron recovered very quickly,” Brown said. “For most patients, it takes time for them to recover from each cycle. But Aaron came in in great shape because he was an athlete and had the ability of handling it and moving on quickly. He was positive and had a great support system in his family and his school.”

And, he had a game plan.

“My goal was to be home for homecoming, Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said. “I just missed. I had a lot of prayers and good wishes ... and I wanted to play football next year.”


Lineman from afar

Back in Hagerstown, the Hubs continued working for the best possible season with their missing lineman on their minds. A teammate created the orange plastic bracelets — symbols that began to show up schoolwide.

Players did everything they could to stay in contact with Miller by phone, text messages, occasional visits and Skype video links.

Cunningham stayed in contact with him, too.

“He told me the day he found out he had cancer that he would be back,” Cunningham said. “He said he still had all his football stuff sitting next to his door, ready to go. Even on his worst days, he was worried about practice and how the kids were doing.”

Early in September, when the Hubs prepared to play Reginald Lewis in the season opener, Cunningham admitted he didn’t know what to expect.

“Before every break and after every drill, the team got together and yelled ‘Aaron,’” Cunningham said. “Then, before the first game, coaches were sitting in the office going over strategy, and it was weird.

“Usually, the players are out in the locker room acting like idiots and yelling, but it was quiet. We walked out to see what was going on and, there they were, every one of them around an iPhone, talking to Aaron.”

Before every game, a call was placed to Miller, who would give the Hubs a pep talk to go out and win. 

“We had him on the phone and we told him we missed him,” Keyes said. “Cancer had him down, but he was still there working for us. He really pushed me as a person.”

During the last week of September, the Hubs had a crucial date against Fort Hill. Miller made some calls to the team and told them that his father was going to bring them a big surprise at practice.

“We didn’t know what it could be,” Cunningham said. “We had been talking to him all along and just thought he was going to send us something from Hopkins.”

As the Hubs hit the practice field, they saw the Miller family car pull up. They looked up as the passenger door opened. Miller was out of the hospital after completing the first round of therapy and had come to see them.

“You would have thought the president had come to the field,” Cunningham said. “They all went charging over to see him.”

Miller was on the sidelines for the Fort Hill game. In fact, he went to midfield for the coin toss as an honorary captain.

“That was the most memorable moment in football for me,” Cunningham said. “Aaron walked out there and showed us what it meant to overcome adversity and smack it in the face. He opened so many eyes.”

After the game, Miller had a setback. He immediately went back to Johns Hopkins because he had developed a blood clot in his arm. Doctors installed a new port near his heart and administered drugs to dissolve the clot, while starting Miller’s second round of therapy.

“It could have been very serious,” Brown said.

Miller completed the second round of treatment in time to get home to watch the Hubs defeat Boonsboro on Oct. 26, just barely missing homecoming.

“I wanted to stay out to see the next game, but they wanted me to come back to start the next round of therapy,” Miller said. “The third one is supposed to be the harshest one.”

The push to start the third round of treatment started during North-South rivalry week. This time, it was Miller’s turn to get a surprise.

A friend’s father was able to place a laptop in the cable television truck that was taping the game for broadcast. Miller got a private, live showing of the game on a big-screen television at Johns Hopkins via Skype, allowing him to see the 14-12 victory that secured a playoff berth for the Hubs.

On Dec. 3, Miller began the final round of treatment.

“The first and last one was supposed to be the worst of all,” Miller said. “It was the easiest for me. It was tough for me to sit still.”

Miller left Johns Hopkins after completing his treatment, getting home just after Christmas. He was able to sit on the bench Dec. 27 as the North boys basketball team played in its holiday tournament.


Back to basketball

When basketball began in November, coach Kevin Hartman wanted to make sure his team also was concerned about Miller. 

“In the summer, he wouldn’t miss any of the open gym time,” Hartman said. “He played for us in the summer league. There were nights he would play in games and then go lift weights afterwards to get ready for football. If he was going to miss a day, he called to let you know. He’s a responsible and caring kid.”

Hartman came up with a way to let Miller know that everyone was thinking of him.

“Coach called me and asked if it was OK if he had some warmups made for the team with ‘AaronStrong’ written on them,” Miller said. “It felt good that they were being so supportive.”

Hartman borrowed the idea from the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, who coined the term “ChuckStrong” after head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. 

“I’m not a Colts fan, but I saw how the team rallied around it and I hoped we would, too,” Hartman said. “We wanted him to know that we were part of him and he was part of us.”

Like the football team, the basketball team kept Miller in the front of their minds. They stayed in contact with him by phone, even calling him after one practice to sing “Happy Birthday” to him.

“When I heard about what Aaron was going through, I cried a little,” said Nick Karlen, who was North’s quarterback and a member of the basketball team. “I thought, ‘How could this happen? It’s such a tragedy.’ When it came to basketball, and you wonder why you aren’t playing much, then you think of Aaron.”


Good news, bad news

On Jan. 3, Miller received good news.

“I had a bone marrow biopsy and they found no leukemia cells,” Miller said. “Right then, I took my wristband and tore it off. I didn’t have cancer anymore, but it still sits on our kitchen table.”

Miller had heard the best news possible. However, a big “but” followed.

“I was told I had heart damage,” he said. “Certain levels of the chemo had affected a ventricle of my heart.”

Miller’s heart was pumping blood at less than half capacity. Doctors prescribed a blood pressure medicine to help with the situation, but Miller wasn’t optimistic at the time.

“Everything was good news and then, all of a sudden, I got a text from Aaron that said, ‘I’m not going to be able to play football. My heart is damaged,’” Cunningham said. “There was the great news and then we had to go back to the real world. I texted back to Aaron about how far he had come and he needed to wait and see what the medicine would do.”

The good sign was that the drug had an almost immediate effect and improved Miller’s prognosis greatly. Within hours, the heart’s performance improved.

On Jan. 4, while he still was waiting and hoping, Miller was on the Hubs’ bench for a home game against Boonsboro. He was bald and he looked pale.

Wearing a surgical mask and his “AaronStrong” warmup shirt, Miller sat on the far end of the bench while the Hubs warmed up. Hartman walked over and sat with Miller, talking to him as if he were going into the game.

“I always tried to sit down with Aaron and Teddy (Schoeck, who was injured and missed most of the season) and ask them to break down the game and tell me what they think we should do,” Hartman said. “We wanted to keep them involved with us.

“Because of Aaron and Teddy, we always said that we played for a higher purpose.”

On Jan. 10, a week after being told his heart was not able to perform under the rigors of athletics, Miller bounced back.

“I was given an echocardiogram to see if my heart had improved,” Miller said. “The blood pressure medicine didn’t make my heart work as hard and it allowed it to improve. They told me that it might affect me as I got older.”

Miller was cleared for activity and to return to school. Still, he was curious about what the scar tissue near his heart might do.

“I looked it up on the Internet and saw that it might not bother me as long as I stayed fit and active,” Miller said. “When I found that out, I went right away to the Y and ran 2 miles.”


Returning to school

The first step to getting back on the playing field was returning to school, which Miller did Jan. 16. 

As he entered the school that first day, he was greeted by a chalk-drawn welcome on the sidewalk. Written in a rainbow of colors were the messages, “Welcome Back, Aaron,” “We love you, 74” and “We missed you.” 

Inside, friends and teachers tried to catch up with him, and signs welcomed him back.

“From my personal standpoint, Aaron’s return was big,” Cunningham said. “You see the younger kids looking at Aaron as a role model because of what he did. In a small way, his return affects every kid in the school, in the county and in the state because it proves to everyone when something happens, you can overcome it.”

Now back in school, Miller worked on things that used to be common for him. His upbeat and courteous personality was uplifting, but sports still were out of reach. 

“It was really hard,” Miller said. “It sucks not being able to play. I wanted to jump in there. I wasn’t cleared to play yet, but I kept moving over and trying to sit next to Coach during the Catoctin game (Jan. 30). I kept asking him to give me my uniform so I could get in there.”

The answer was “no.” He still needed doctor’s clearance.


Getting in the game

On Feb. 8, there was a spring in Miller’s step.

At around 2:30 p.m., he was in North’s gym with a class, working with a basketball and shooting. It didn’t look like much, but there was a purpose.

“I’m cleared to play and practice today,” Miller said with a smile. “I’m going to be able to dress tonight. I don’t think I’m going to get to play, but I’ll be dressed.”

The Hubs were playing at Clear Spring, a team they had beaten easily Jan. 10 — the day Miller got the good news about his heart.

“It’s really remarkable,” Brown said. “We have no way to predict how long it will take for patients to recover. Some take several months or longer. But this all speaks volumes about Aaron and the kind of kid he is.”

The Hubs took the floor for warmups before the game. The last man out, wearing his camouflage warmup shirt, was Miller.

When the game started, Miller took his usual spot at the far end of the bench away from Hartman and the Hubs’ usual rotation of players. As the game progressed, North continued to build a lead.

“The players kept saying, ‘Coach, put Aaron in,’” Hartman said.

In the back of his mind, the coach was thinking the same thing.

The Hubs held a significant lead with about one minute left in the third quarter. Hartman sent five players to the scorer’s table, including Miller. Miller took the floor to cheers from his bench and from the stands — from North and Clear Spring fans alike.

“Everyone thinks I’m a hard guy because I yell,” Hartman said. “But when Aaron went in, I had to look away. I was getting emotional.

“I thought, we had spent the entire season talking to Aaron and Teddy about how things would be when they came back to play. I spent many nights with my kids praying for them. And now, it was happening.

“I asked him how it was, and he said he was tired. I told him to be ready. He will probably go in for the final minute of the game.”

With 1:36 to play, Miller went back into the game. Karlen tried to make a pass to him to score, but the ball bounced off his hands.

“It was just incredible to see him back,” Karlen said. “When he first got back to school, I gave him a high five, but to be back playing, that was incredible. It moves you and makes you work hard every day.”

Hartman knew this win was special, but he got a reminder from Miller.

“Aaron sent me a text message, thanking me for putting him into the game,” Hartman said.

“I thought about it. After all he’s been through and he’s thanking me for putting him in the game. I texted back and said, ‘No, thank you. It was one of the greatest coaching highlights of my career, having you play and come back.’”


Looking to the future

After an arduous detour, Miller is back where he started — working again to play football for the Hubs. 

“It was just a lot of prayers that went into it,” Miller said of his recovery. “The doctors were great and it was great the way everyone supported me. I thank God.”

Miller’s strides to remission are the answer to his parents’ prayers.

“I’m elated,” Robin Miller said. “It’s unbelievable that he’s doing so well. We didn’t think he would be here at this time. He still has some obstacles. We are so thankful for all the support. It’s been a journey.”

Aaron Miller is resuming his pursuit to play football, and he can’t wait to take the field.

“We are going to go undefeated next year,” he said with a confident smile.

If that holds true, in Miller’s eyes, he will just be continuing his winning streak.

“I feel like I was undefeated this year,” he said. “I’m still here.”

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