Federal act named for Gabriella Miller signed into law


Mark Miller, left, Ellyn Miller, right, and their son Jake, center, pose for a portrait in their daughter, Gabriella's bedroom at their home in Leesburg, Va., on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Zach Gibson/The Associated Press)

Less than six months after 10-year-old childhood cancer awareness advocate Gabriella Miller died of an inoperable brain tumor, a federal pediatric medical research bill named in her honor was signed into law by President Obama at a White House ceremony Thursday afternoon.

Gabriella, a Leesburg fifth grader, became a widely celebrated activist and successful fundraiser on behalf of childhood cancer awareness during her 11-month battle with brain cancer. In the weeks before her death Oct. 26, she urged lawmakers to take up the cause of pediatric cancer research.

“Talk is bull[expletive],” she said bluntly during an interview for a cancer awareness documentary. “We need action.”

Congressional leaders answered her call last year with the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, a bipartisan bill that will divert $126 million — money previously used to finance national political conventions — to the common fund at the National Institutes of Health, where it will support research into childhood cancer and other pediatric diseases and disorders.

“In effect what happened was Congress put down the battle axes for a moment and took a step forward by investing research dollars in pediatric disease,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told The Post after attending the signing of the bill. “It took this truly inspirational effort by this young girl.”

The medical research act, introduced by Welch and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) and strongly championed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), was passed by the House in December and by the Senate last month. The legislation earned bipartisan support in both chambers despite opposition by some House Democrats, who claimed the act distracted from substantial Republican-supported sequester cuts to National Institutes of Health funding.

Welch said he understood those concerns:“I’m heartsick, frankly, about the cuts to NIH,” he said. “I certainly think that there should be more money [for medical research], but the fact that we can’t get what we like is not a reason to not do what we can do, and we did that here.”

The bill also received strong backing from elected leaders in Gabriella’s home state of Virginia. Sens. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark R. Warner (D) announced their support for the act in January, and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) also signed on as one of more than 100 co-sponsors of the proposed legislation.

Gabriella’s parents, Mark and Ellyn Miller, and her little brother, Jake, attended the signing ceremony in the Oval Office Thursday.

Wednesday night, Ellyn Miller wrote a message about the bill on the Facebook page for the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, the nonprofit organization Gabriella and her family founded to raise funds for childhood cancer research.

“I acknowledge that this is an incredibly important step for childhood cancer awareness. But, yet, we have so very far to go for our children that are battling cancer,” she said in the post.

Miller wrote that she had recently discovered a list of goals that Gabriella made for herself. Included on the list was the goal to “get her foundation going,” to “speak more” and to “get the White House lit” — a reference to efforts to have the president’s home bathed in gold light in September, in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

“Goals make dreams come true,” Miller wrote, urging Gabriella’s supporters to continue to work toward raising awareness and funds for cancer research. “Please join us to help make her goal a reality.”

Gabriella’s shared her most important objective on film in the days before her death, when she tearfully recognized her own mortality and called on others to continue her work.

“If I go, if I lose my battle, then I want other people to carry on with the war,” Gabriella said. “They’re going to win this war.”

In a statement following the signing Thursday, Cantor acknowledged that specific request. The act, he said, “is only the beginning. We have more work to do.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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