A Camp Pendleton-based Marine is on a mission to turn the grief of losing a child into support for other families impacted by cancer.
Maj. John Watkins pauses as he looks for the right words to describe his baby daughter, Amelia, affectionately nicknamed Millie Mae. He remembers her deep adoration for her brother, Kaden, who she would laugh and smile at every time he walked into the room. Now, nearly two years since losing Millie Mae, Watkins is determined to have those happier memories guide him in his fight against the disease that took her life.
Millie Mae was less than a year old when she first became ill during the family’s cross-country move. Watkins and his wife, Jayshree, were initially told their daughter had an ear infection, but her health continued to decline.
“She was not feeling well. We were in the middle of a PCS move from Virginia to California and she had an ear infection, so we had taken her to the doctor in Virginia. They had given her some medicine, and we would continue to treat her and we were told she was fine to travel so we started moving across the country,” Watkins said. “Then, all the way throughout she was just very lethargic, wasn’t herself, so throughout the way we took her to different ERs or Urgent cares and there were several different diagnoses from pneumonia to double ear infection.”
The family continued visiting hospitals across the U.S. because Millie Mae wasn’t getting any better. Doctors finally gave her more in-depth testing, including an MRI. It was later revealed she had Stage 4 neuroblastoma.
“At that point it was just too late, and it quickly went downhill,” he said.
On June 6, 2017, just eight days after her diagnosis, Millie Mae passed away at the age of 10 months old.
In the days following, Watkins and his wife looked for ways to transform this tremendous loss into support for families in similar situations, which is when they discovered the Children’s Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation — a nonprofit national health organization committed to finding a cure for neuroblastoma through research, education, awareness and advocacy, according to its website.
“Neuroblastoma is called the great masquerader because it can mimic common childhood ailments, such as a tummy ache. It isn’t unusual for the disease to be misdiagnosed,” said Pat Tallungan, co-founder and president of CNCF, stated in a press release. Neither Tallungan nor the Watkins family had heard of neuroblastoma until their child was affected. Tallungan’s son, Nick, died in 1999 at age 10.
The organization has become a source of comfort for the Watkins family by providing them with an outlet to build Millie Mae’s legacy.
“When Millie passed we told her, we’re not going to forget her. We’re going to continue to do things for her and in her name. It was kind of our promise to her; that’s where we started to expand it,” Watkins said.
Last year, he decided to use his affinity for athletics to assemble Team Millie Mae Strong and raise funds for CNCF. This month, however, he is going the solo route to compete in a full Ironman race in Santa Rosa, Calif. His preparation had to be adapted, though, because of a recent eight-month deployment on a ship.
“I was on treadmill and on a stationary bike in the ship,” he said. “I follow a training plan that basically has one-to-two hour workouts during the week. I’ll take a break on Fridays, then Saturdays are my long rides with a short run, maybe a swim. Those are upwards of four to six hours, and Sundays are my long runs — anywhere from two-to-three hours.”
And on those days where he seeks to find motivation, he thinks about Millie Mae’s laughter or looks at her pictures.
“It always helps me get out of whatever funk I’m in when I’m at hour four or five with another hour to push,” he said.
Watkins has advice for others struggling to get answers for whatever their instinct is telling them is wrong.
“Always ask the hard questions and never take no for an answer. I would rather chase 100 wrong diagnosis or something that feels funny than the one time you miss it and something like this happens,” he added.
To support the Watkins family in their quest to honor Millie Mae’s memory donations are being accepted at Miles for Millie.
Visit Millie Mae Strong to keep up with family updates.Read comments