“I had a dream so big and loud
I jumped so high I touched the clouds
— From “Best Day Of My Life” by American Authors
Not everyone can pinpoint the best day in life.
But it’s already easy for Stewart Elementary School second-grader Millie Sica.
It’s Aug. 6, 2016, her seventh birthday and the day she got a wiggly, 2-year-old, 55-pound bundle of fur: a black Labrador retriever named “Miracles.”
Like many famous leaders who didn’t do well in school but later discovered their true calling in the real world, Miracles, born and raised in Palmetto, didn’t make it through Southeastern Guide Dogs’ rigorous training to be a guide dog for the blind.
It might be because she gets distracted easily, Millie’s family thinks.
But as a Canine Connection dog, a dog whose gift is not to safely lead someone across the street but to be the best friend of a little girl who has a cancerous brain tumor, Miracles has found her calling.
When Miracles bounded into their life, the surprised Millie, whose tumor has left her legally blind, shouted, “Gee, it’s a dog. I love her.”
“Miracles is Millie’s friend,” said Mille’s grandmother, Yvonne Sica. “She is friends to all of us. She is a companion for the entire family, and she has brought a lot of happiness to our home.”
Millie, who is in a hospital homebound program at Stewart and spends only half-days there, sometimes drifts off to sleep next to Miracles.
“She puts her paw on my hand,” said Millie, who has learned to read braille at Stewart with the help of her caring vision teacher, Courtney Clemmons.
On the gloomy days after chemotherapy when Millie is too tired to even try watching TV up close, she hand signals for Miracles to come to her. Millie pets Miracles, a comfort for both child and dog.
Remission is not the correct word for Millie’s current cancer status. Stable is better, Sica said. Drugs she is receiving have blunted the tumor’s growth.
“She is at a very good place right now at age 7,” Sica said. “From research, they have found that many times the children get stability at this age. We do know it can grow again especially as she gets into puberty. In the early 20s, the growth usually stops. So, right now, we are thrilled with how she is doing.”
Millie and Miracles need each other
Millie’s grandmother retired in 2013 after 35 years as a teacher to stay home and care for Millie during chemo. Early this past summer, Sica wrote a letter to Southeastern Guide Dogs, the Palmetto-based nonprofit that trains dogs for serving the blind.
Sica’s letter explained that her granddaughter was diagnosed in 2013, at age 3, with a long and skinny cancerous tumor, shaped kind of like a string bean, located in her brain, right behind her eyes.
The oncologists call it an optic, low-grade pediatric glioma, Yvonne Sica said. They disclosed that the tumor was responsible for Millie not being able to see except if she got very close to things.
“I asked them if they would consider a Canine Connections dog for Millie because she will qualify for a guide dog some day,” said Sica, who shares her west Bradenton home with Millie and Millie’s mom, Melissa Sica, who works at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
A Canine Connections dog helps visually impaired children learn the responsibilities of caring for a large-breed dog, building a bridge to a future guide dog. Still, Southeastern Guide Dogs usually waits until a child is 10, Sica said.
“Their CEO was wonderful and approved Millie to have a dog,” Sica said.
On July 5, Millie had to have an MRI, which she usually does while sedated, even though the sedation makes her sick. This time, she tried it without being sedated.
“While she was in the MRI, I was praying for small miracles, and the next day they called me from Southeastern and said, ‘We have a dog for Millie and her name is Miracles.’ I was speechless. It was perfect, just perfect.”
By the way, Millie’s favorite song?
“Best Day Of My Life,” of course.