Wish to come true for Riley

A little girl. A big island. A bigger wish.

For 4-year-old Riley Miller, that’s the recipe for a dream come true. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Riley and her family are set to leave their home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Tuesday to catch a plane for the South Pacific.

Destination: Hawaii. Expectation: The trip of a lifetime. “Three more days – then we’re taking off,” Riley exclaimed during a phone call Saturday. “And then I get to hula!”

Technically, Riley has been wiggling her hips in hula heaven for the past few weeks, learning the hypnotic motions of the ancient dance from Kaimiola Polynesian Dance, an authentic-hula course offered through University Place’s Parks and Recreation Services.

On Sunday, Riley was expected to don a ti leaf skirt and a coconut-shell bra to join her hula troupe in a performance at a luau thrown in Riley’s honor with friends and relatives at JBLM’s Hillside Elementary.

The hula lessons, the luau and the coming vacation are part of fulfilling the wish of a little girl who has suffered big during her brief life.

Born with a subglottic hemangioma – a rare congenital malformation in her throat – Riley’s life nearly ended just as it began.

With her father, military police officer Jason Miller, deployed in Iraq, Riley’s mother, Leah Miller, initially was left to cope on her own with her newborn girl’s illness, while parenting the couple’s four older children.

The family, then living at the Army’s Fort Polk, La., brought Riley to a Louisiana State University hospital, where doctors couldn’t identify her condition.

“They did surgery and put her on medication,” Leah Miller recalled. “She got better, then she got worse. She was misdiagnosed.”

Riley’s tumor grew so big, it began to choke off her airway. Her parents ultimately found a specialist in San Antonio who properly diagnosed Riley and performed an emergency tracheotomy to insert a breathing tube.

“He saved Riley’s life,” said Leah, noting the family moved to a home near the Texas hospital during Riley’s treatments there.

Riley has since had 33 surgeries. For three of her four years, she’s lived with a breathing tube. She’s had her throat reconstructed and her rare condition has caused a host of other medical complications.

“Most kids with subglottic hemangioma don’t have the extensive problems that she did,” Leah said.

Still, Riley’s mom said she feels fortunate, because her daughter “has a good prognosis now.”

“She’ll still need to have more surgeries and she has to be closely monitored, but she’s feeling so much better.”

Riley’s experience inspired her mother to seek ways to help other children facing similar life-threatening ordeals.

About a year ago, when the family moved yet again – this time to JBLM – Leah began volunteering with the local Make-A-Wish chapter. While working to help grant another sick child’s wish, Leah asked Riley what she would wish for, if granted just one wish.

“She told me, ‘I wish to be a hula dancer and go to Ha-waddi,’” Leah said.

As Riley explains it, the idea came from one of her favorite cartoons.

“Lilo and Stitch,” she said, “’cause I liked to watch them, and they were always hula dancing.”

Jeannette Tarcha, spokeswoman for the local Make-A-Wish chapter, which serves Washington and Alaska, said the nonprofit was thrilled to make Riley’s dream come true. General charity funds will cover the costs of Riley’s wish, Tarcha said. That includes an outing to swim with dolphins.

By coincidence, Leah Miller randomly selected Hawaiian-born hula instructor Nancy Kaimiola Sweezey to help fulfill her daughter’s wish. More than two decades ago, Kaimiola Sweezey’s own daughter, then suffering from a brain tumor, was visited by Make-A-Wish volunteers.

“But she died before her own wish could be granted,” Kaimiola Sweezey said.

“So that’s why I’m just so excited about helping Riley,” she said. “My daughter didn’t get her wish, but now I can help another girl get her wish.”

Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542 lewis.kamb@thenewstribune.com