When 5-year-old Luke Miller rang the bell in February signaling the successful end of chemotherapy, he was actually a little sad to see his 2 1/2 years of treatment – half his life – come to a close.

That’s how much he adored his medical team at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. And they adored him even more.

Megan Miller gazes at her son squirming in her lap – a ball of boundless energy and red hair that has grown back – and sees more than a cancer survivor. She sees a child whose spirit inspires other cancer patients waiting to ring their own bell.

“Luke,” his mom said, “turned something so hostile into something so hopeful.”

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‘He brought so much joy’

The clinic across from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center treats patients up to age 22 who are dealing with cancer or blood disorders. Among the 2,300 patients seen in 2023, Luke was the only one whose steroids were crushed and sprinkled over his tortilla chips and guacamole. “Mom,” he announced, “that tasted funny.”

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Dr. Christine Bolen

That’s Luke, said his oncologist, Dr. Christine Bolen, who has been there from the start of his journey. “He’d show up with a smile and his trains. He has a tremendous capacity to see the positive. He brought so much joy to everyone.”

About those toy trains. When Bolen needed to look in his ears, she’d tell Luke she had to see whether the trains were running on time. When he’d leave a caboose or two under a chair, nurse Kristen White and her colleagues would stash them away until next time. “My ladies,” he called them.

“This became like a second home to him,” White said. “You don’t see that, where they want to stay and play.”

Luke Miller at the start of treatment age 3

‘Dust himself off and move on’

A swollen lymph node led to the diagnosis of B cell lymphoblastic lymphoma on Oct. 16, 2021. Luke was just short of 3 years old. When they were told the news, his mom fell to the ground. Then she picked herself up, literally and figuratively, and with her husband, Brent, followed the doctor’s order to get him to the St. Jude clinic immediately.

Thus began 2 1/2 years of chemotherapy, ranging from a couple of hours a day to all day. Interspersed over the course of a year were six-week periods when he came every weekday. Luke and his mom or dad would leave home in Huntersville at 7:30 or 8 a.m. They’d stop and get Luke a four-cheese souffle from Panera. Sometimes they’d have it DoorDashed to the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic.

Luke would wash it down with orange juice from his red YETI cup. Then he would get down to business.

The Millers would arrive home anytime between 1 and 4 p.m., rest up and do it again the next day, souffle and all.

There was more. Once a month Luke had a spinal tap at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. As Bolen explained, this procedure removes spinal fluid to be analyzed for leukemia and also administers chemotherapy into the spinal fluid. All children with acute leukemia undergo this procedure.

Luke dealt with some nausea during his four phases of chemo. He lost that beautiful head of hair and some sensation in his legs. When it was over, he had to relearn potty training. But he never lost his verve, which was obvious since chemo was administered through a mobile IV pump. In other words, he had the run of the place.

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