A 3-year-old Claremont boy who is living life to the fullest despite multiple health problems has inspired Western University of Health Sciences Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students to raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).

Joshua “JJ” Miller was born with Werner mesomelic dysplasia with Hirschsprung’s disease and double outlet right ventricle. He has undergone various surgeries, including heart surgeries and having both legs amputated above the knees.

Students from WesternU’s College of Allied Health Professions Department of Physical Therapy Education met Joshua and his parents while volunteering at Camp No Limits in Big Bear in June. They formed an instant bond and, more recently, third-year DPT students Jennifer Shire and Natalie Forsberg spent an afternoon with Joshua in the park and at the Miller’s home.

“As he warmed up to us it wasn’t long before this little boy was holding your hand and telling you how excited he was to play ‘Chutes and Ladders’ with you,” Shire said. “He had the ability to melt your heart in an instant. He is so full of life and does not let his disability stop him, nor does he ever mention it or talk about it.”

Forsberg and her classmates volunteered to form athletic teams for “Team JJ,” which consists of Joshua and his support crew of family and friends, financial supporters and athletes who compete in his name to benefit people with physical challenges. A group of 25 DPT students, alumni and their friends that will compete in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge on Oct. 23, 2011 in La Jolla, Calif.

They are raising money to cover the entry fees, which benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to provide opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics. CAF believes that involvement in sports at any level increases self-esteem, encourages independence and enhances quality of life, according to CAF’s website.

The Miller family had thought about fundraising for the organization when Joshua turned 6 or 7, but the DPT students’ excitement about competing this year convinced them to start now, said Joshua’s mother, Laura Miller. They are inspired by CAF and by Rudy Garcia-Tolson, the first double above-knee amputee to finish an Ironman Triathlon.

“That gave us hope and encouragement that Joshua will be able to do things as he grows up,” Miller said. “My husband is also a double amputee. He never rode a bike in his life until he received a hand-cycle as an adult. When we learned about Joshua’s legs at 20 weeks during pregnancy, I had the thought that he might never be able to play little league.

“Our prosthetist, Minh Tran, from Loma Linda University Medical Center, introduced us to Rudy and he showed us that it will be possible with the advances in prosthetic equipment for our son to run and ride a bike,” she said. “CAF makes it possible for individuals to get grants to receive adapted equipment above and beyond the basic necessities that medical insurance covers. Not only may Joshua be able to ride a bike but he also one day will be able to run with adaptive running legs. Something the rest of us take for granted.”

WesternU students held a “Team JJ Lunch and Learn” with Joshua and Laura Miller on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011 on campus. Laura Miller talked about Joshua’s medical history and shared photos of his many hospital visits as well as many happy times. Joshua won over the audience by demonstrating how fast he can walk on his prosthetic legs and with his constant smile and infectious joy. 

Supporting Joshua has helped unite the DPT students, with more than half of the Class of 2012 participating in the triathlon, Forsberg said. She has never competed in a triathlon, but she is working out every day in the gym for Joshua.

“He’s a huge motivator. He’s already a huge inspiration to people and he’s only 3 years old,” Forsberg said. “With his spirit and joy he’s already doing so much.”

Laura Miller said she hopes this is the beginning of a long-term relationship with WesternU. During the lunch, she will tell Joshua’s story and how Team JJ and WesternU can help others.

“If you’re going into working with people with disabilities, students might want to get involved when they’re young and energetic,” she said. “(The triathlon) could be an experience where they make contacts and see a big population of people with amputations and disabilities.”

Shire said that working with the Millers reminds her of why she wants to be a pediatric physical therapist.

“It’s the driven, motivated family that will do anything for their 3-year-old boy to have the best life he can,” Shire said. “It’s the little boy that holds your hand and tells you how excited he is to play with you. It’s being a physical therapist and teaching that little boy to walk and lead a normal life. But I also think this is why so many DPT students jumped on this opportunity to race in the triathlon and be a part of Team JJ. All of us have this passion to help individuals in any way we can without even meeting someone. All we need is one story of how we can help people and everyone jumps on board. I think this shows a lot about our program and our dedication to being physical therapists.”

For more information, please visit the websites www.teamjj.org and www.facebook.com/goteamjj. To donate to the WesternU DPT Team JJ, please visit http://sdtc11.kintera.org/dpt2012westernu.