Even after 14 surgeries, 24-year-old Andrew Mills, of Avon, is smiling through life | VailDaily.com

Even after 14 surgeries, 24-year-old Andrew Mills, of Avon, is smiling through life

Andrew Mills was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with brain stem cancer. Fourteen surgeries and 21 years later, Mills is still smiling through life.
Special to the Daily |

AVON — Here’s some solid life advice: Do not get into one of those show-your-scars contests with Andrew Mills.

Mills smiles as he points to the scars on his forehead where his halo was screwed to his skull for much of his childhood. The halo kept his head still while he was recovering from some of the 14 surgeries to treat the brain-stem cancer he survived when he was 3 years old.

Then Mills grins and points to a remarkable surgical scar at the base of his skull, the remnants of the neck fracture he said he suffered when one of his doctors broke it, while the doctor was supposed to be treating him for brain-stem cancer.

Mills is now 24 years old, smiling, working, skiing, living in the Vail Valley and doing fine. The halo is a childhood memory he doesn’t necessarily want to remember. He has the scars for that.

He remembers some of it fondly, though.

“I remember getting the halo off,” he said, smiling.

He also remembers being at a babysitter’s house, where he was bitten in the face by Otis, a golden retriever that did not recognize him. That scar is where 65 stitches sewed him back together.

Mills smiles about the end of that story. His friend Sandra gave him his own golden retriever. He named her Francis; Mills, 5 years old at the time, and his dog Francis were inseparable for years.

There was the time a doctor took a wrench to his halo.

“I definitely remember that,” Mills said, smiling and shaking his head, because these days he can shake his head.

There are other types of scars. Because he was constantly preparing for, or recovering from surgery, he couldn’t play sports. Tough for a kid in Alabama, but you cannot fit a football helmet or baseball cap over a halo that’s screwed to your head.

The Crimson Tide, by the way, rolls through Mills’ heart.

“It was fun seeing Auburn lose to Georgia,” he said, laughing.

He saw a lot of Alabama as a kid. His mom, Jackie, drove him from Mobile to Birmingham for 60 rounds of chemotherapy over 2 1/2 years. There’s a rooftop garden at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham.

How it started

Mills was less than 1 year old when he stopped breathing and passed out. He was back in the hospital in less than a year when he could not sit up or walk.

He was 3 years old when his uncle, ophthalmologist Dr. Andy Terry, spotted tumors on his optic nerve. A different doctor found tumors on his brain stem from a genetic disorder, neurofibromatosis, which is more common than you might think, Mills said. One surgery was followed eight days later by a second. Doctors sent him home in a neck brace to heal. He did.

For his fifth birthday, he had neck fusion surgery.

He learned to cook at 6 years old and was later invited to a private screening with the Food Network.

“You get to see all the stuff that’s left out,” Mills said.

He caught the ski bug a year later, when he was 7 years old. His doctors were cranky when he and his mom told them about it. The doctors told them all sorts of things, finally settling on one admonition.

“The doctors told me to be careful,” Mills said.

He said he is, generally, sticking mostly to blue runs … mostly.

He relocated to Avon from Alabama a couple years ago. He likes Alabama, but the skiing is better here.

Mills smiles when he tells you about his medical history, like it’s something everyone goes through.

The first part of that previous sentence is the most telling of all. Even with all he has been through in his young life, Andrew Mills smiles.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

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