MANATEE -- While nearly everyone was celebrating the Fourth of July in 2013, Bradenton resident Melissa Sica's world was caving in.
A single mom, Sica was at All-Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg with her then 4-year-old curly haired, precocious daughter, Millie, who had just gotten a diagnosis that is every parent's worst nightmare.
Dr. Stacie Stapleton, director of pediatric neuro-oncology at All-Children's, was telling the numb Sica that the MRI just taken of her daughter's brain revealed a 6-centimeter by 2.8 centimeter glioma which was entangled in her daughter's hypothalamus and both optic nerves. The tumor was inoperable.
"You are sitting there trying to process that your child has a brain tumor," Sica said of Stapleton's visit.
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But, just then, something happened that would reassemble Sica's world and lead to her daughter being well enough a year later to meet her musical heroes, The Wiggles, before a Tampa Bay Rays' game on Sept. 7.
Like a white-coated Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Stapleton began staring at Melissa Sica's face.
The doctor said in an excited voice, "Hey, you have two different-colored eyes."
Sica wondered where this was going and why the fact that her left eye was brown and right eye was hazel mattered at the moment when she had just received the worst news of her life.
"My brown iris is a birthmark I think," Sica told the doctor. "I also have brown spots all over the left side of my body."
Stapleton wanted to see for herself.
Sica, who works at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in patient financial services and lives in Flamingo Cay near Palma Sola Bay, was then surprised when the doctor began jumping up and down in the examination room after seeing a slew of birthmarks.
"This could be NF!'" Sica remembers the doctor exclaiming.
"I had no idea what she was talking about," Sica said.
Neurofibromatosis is family's relief
The reason the doctor was somewhat relieved and that Millie is now resuming her love of The Wiggles is that the doctor correctly guessed that Melissa Sica had the genetic disorder neurofibromastosis, also known as NF, and that she had passed it down to Millie, whose tumor was probably also NF.
Stapleton knew that NF tumors, despite their fearsome appearance on an MRI and official status as cancerous, are low grade and non-aggressive and that, although this one was inoperable, was probably something Millie could coexist with during a relatively normal life.
"We didn't even know what NF was," said Sica, whose daughter, now 5, has been in treatment for a year.
Occurring once in 3,000 births, NF is a genetic disorder that is characterized, in its most harmless presentation, by multiple cafe-au-lait spots on or under the skin, according to the Children's Tumor Foundation.
Unfortunately, more severe side effects with NF include vision loss, curvature of the spine, also known as scoliosis; tumors in the brain and kidney; learning and growth and hormone issues, Dr. Stapleton said.
Melissa Sica, who did not have a brain tumor as a child, does have cafe-au-lait spots and had learning issues as a child, her mother, Yvonne Sica, said.
"What I was happy about that moment in the examination room with Melissa was that I knew since it was NF, Millie's tumor was more curable," Dr. Stapleton said. "NF tumors respond well to chemotherapy."
To "cure" her tumor, Dr. Stapleton has bombarded it with chemotherapy over the past year.
"It kills the tumor, leaving it, we hope, almost liquefied, but still there," Melissa Sica said of the strong cancer-killing drugs.
"Millie is following treatment well and her MRIs show we have the tumor under control," Dr. Stapleton said.
But the tumor entangled with her optic nerve has left Millie legally blind,. She has depth perception problems, including feeling for steps with her foot. She doesn't see colors well and must keep her iPad close to her face to use it. Faces are blurry for her unless they are very close, but she can look up and clearly see the moon and other faraway things, grandmother Yvonne Sica said.
"We do a lot of crafts with sticks and make things with paper plates," Yvonne Sica said of Millie. "She likes to cut things out."
Glasses can't ever help Millie because there is nothing wrong with her eyes, Yvonne Sica said.
"It's the nerve that sends the message from the brain to the eyes that is impaired," Sica said.
Some patients with NF can't hold a job due to the side affects, but there are some patients who do function normally and have a good quality of life, Dr. Stapleton said.
Millie takes occupational therapy to cope with physical issues brought about by the tumor, which include over-stimulation and early hormone production.
Until she is 11, Millie must take a drug to halt the beginnings of puberty, her mother said. She is also taller than most 5-year-olds due to stimulation of her growth hormones.
Although she can walk, due to her vision impairment she often rides in a pink wheelchair the family calls her "scooter."
"She is a wonderful, very outgoing, well spoken, bright, smart, and, despite her setbacks, a very happy child," Melissa Sica said.
Millie meets The Wiggles at the Trop
The Children's Dream Fund of St. Petersburg, a nonprofit organization that has been making dreams come true for children with life-threatening illnesses living in West Central Florida since 1981, recently picked Millie for a "dream come true" moment.
"We told her it was because she has been so brave during all her chemotherapy treatments," Yvonne Sica said.
When asked by Dream Coordinator Sara Williams, Millie didn't hesitate to say what she wanted, which was, "to meet The Wiggles," Melissa Sica said.
On Sept. 7, Millie made the trip to Tropicana Field before a Tampa Bay Rays' game to meet The Wiggles in person. Millie wore a pair of capri pants and had on something purple, blue, yellow and red, The Wiggles' colors.
Millie met all four Wiggles, including founder and the last original Wiggle member, Anthony Field, as well as Lachy Gillespie, Simon Pryce and Emma Watkins.
"Millie asked each one a question," Yvonne Sica said. "They talked with her. They sang, 'Do the Propeller' for her. She loved it. She was dancing. I think she was awe-struck. She asked Anthony how long he had taught pre-school before starting The Wiggles and he said, 'Three years.' Millie likes Simon because he is an opera singer. She asked him who taught him to sing opera and he told her his grandparents and you could tell it was special for him. She asked Emma and Lachy how long they had been Wiggles.
"They were all sweet and posed for pictures with her," Yvonne Sica added. "All during her time with The Wiggles she kept whispering to me, 'This is the best day ever. I can't believe this happened.' "
Millie's NF was hard to diagnose at first
Millie's first NF symptom showed up when she was 3 when she developed unusual sleeping habits.
"She would fall asleep when it wasn't appropriate and be up when she should be asleep," Yvonne Sica said. "She often fell asleep in ballet class with the other kids running around and yelling. I knew something was wrong."
Doctors tested Millie and found she had hit all the developmental guideposts for her age. They were perplexed.
"We thought it was a sleep disorder," Melissa Sica said.
Millie began to shy away from interacting with other children in her preschool. It was because she was having trouble seeing and she had to get close to the kids to see them, her grandmother said.
"Kids act funny when you get in their space," Yvonne Sica said. "Millie learned to stay away."
Millie felt more comfortable getting close to adults, who loved her attention.
"I noticed that when I picked her up from preschool she would not always be out playing but outside next to the teachers," Yvonne Sica said.
Millie is extremely intelligent and is expected to have no problem keeping academic pace with her peers, her family said.
Millie is enrolled in a School District of Manatee County's homebound kindergarten program.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.