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Chandler teen invited to White House for his work on heart health

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WASHINGTON – Phoenix’s biggest champion against heart disease descended on the White House Friday to meet with top officials from the Obama administration at an event celebrating American Heart Month.

And his mom and dad came, too.

Emery Miller, a Chandler 13-year-old who has undergone four open-heart surgeries for congenital heart defects, has helped raise nearly $200,000 for the American Heart Association in Phoenix, which nominated him for the White House honor.

Coming to Washington meant missing the Phoenix Heart Walk, the first time he’s been absent since being born, but Emery said this opportunity was worth it.

“Coming up here is going to get us more money even though I’d love to be back in Arizona,” he said Friday. The White House event, which featured 150 people from around the country, was intended to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease, particularly among women and minorities.

It was great “just hanging out with people that you’re like,” Emery said. “Some of them have the same stories as you.”

Emery, a seventh-grader from Horizon Community Learning Center in Ahwatukee, has always had a personal stake in fighting heart disease and has been speaking to raise awareness since he was 5. He became even more involved two years ago, when a school counselor came to his class and talked about “paying it forward,” or doing a good deed for someone who returns the favor to somebody else.

It was around Christmas, and Emery decided that rather than get presents himself that year he wanted to “give a bear to every kid at the (Phoenix Children’s) hospital.” He set a goal of collecting a teddy bear for each of the 400 kids in the hospital, and wound up with 485.

His “bear drive” has since grown: He topped last year’s goal of 1,000 teddy bears by 400 as well as 600 other stuffed animals.

“I call it power of the people,” he said, explaining that all he does is ask others to help. “If you really want something done, people will do it ’cause they want to help you.”

Emery said he likes helping others through tough times, and all he asks is that they pay it forward when they get better.

“Just seeing the support behind him is just an incredible feeling,” said Lori Miller, his mom. “He just has an army of people behind him.”

She said Emery uses his story to inspire others through his public speaking, in Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles.

“He creates hope for people in a hopeless situation,” she said.

She is proud of her son’s accomplishments. But, after learning the day after he was born of all the challenges Emery would be up against in life, it’s often the small things that make her grateful.

“It’s the normal things I get choked up about,” said Miller, who cried the first time Emery rode a carousel. “All this is unreal . . .  this is the icing on the cake.”

The fight turns personal once again in April when Emery returns to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital for his fifth procedure. It will be the first since he was 6 and “the first one that I am actually ‘living’ through,” said Emery, admitting he is worried, after first trying to hide behind his confidence.

He will be the first patient at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital to undergo a new procedure that installs a cow valve, which should lead to a faster recovery.

In the meantime, Emery and his parents have been enjoying several days in Washington.

At the White House with his mom Friday, he was tickled to ask a question of Jon Carson, the director of the Office of Public Engagement, that was “so scientific that I stumped him.” A huge hockey fan, he planned to wear his Coyotes jersey to a Washington Capitals game Friday.

Emery, who also plays baseball, said he would like to be a coach or general manager some day, or continue with his motivational speaking.

“It’d be cool to travel around the country and world speaking to kids,” he said. “As long as I don’t have to learn another language, I’ll be OK.”

And he hopes this trip to the White House is not his last.

“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I’m hoping it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “I hope to come back.”