Stephen smiling
Stephen Millen was all smiles during a party to celebrate his going home. (Photo: UHN)

Stephen Edward Millen makes people smile. Whether it's singing I Believe I Can Fly or My Heart Will Go On while walking with the physiotherapy team on the bone marrow transplant units at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, drawing UHN staff members as superheroes, or meditating, complete with his hands in a chin mudra yoga pose, the leukemia patient has a knack for getting those around him to feel good.

"All the patients look forward to seeing him," says Margie Espino, an occupational therapy/physiotherapy assistant at the Princess Margaret, who has been part of Stephen's care team since he arrived in 2016.

"He's always just so positive."

Already an inspiration to everyone he meets, Stephen recently added to his legendary status, going home after a second allogenic stem cell transplant to complete a mission even he admits seemed unlikely during the worst depths of his illness over the past couple of years.

"It's not easy fighting leukemia," Stephen, 25, said at his going away party. "I was scared for my life.

"I just want to thank everyone for supporting me as I went through this journey. You helped me get better and build up my strength. Now, I feel good."

But Stephen offered more than just heartfelt words that brought a tear to the eye of many gathered. He loves to draw, watch football and cartoons. One of his favourite shows is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which serves as an influence for a series of drawings featuring hospital staff as superheroes.

While one day he wants to open his own gallery, Stephen said goodbye to staff at the Princess Margaret by treating them to an art show – posting his sketches on the walls around the 14th floor.

"It really was his personal, heartfelt expression of gratitude to the team for saving his life," says Derek Strachan, Spiritual Care Practitioner at the cancer centre. "He just felt he needed to say thank you.

"It's was about more than clinical care, though there is that. It's also genuine compassionate care."

Stephen completed more than two dozen sketches of staff members who helped care for him at the Princess Margaret. (Sketch: Courtesy Stephen Edward Millen)

More than two dozen sketches in all, they portray Stephen's care team with superhero costumes and strong poses clearly intended to offer support and fight diseases.

Some feature groups of people such as "The Apheresis Rangers," occupational therapy and physiotherapy, and more than 20 members of the Bone Marrow Transplant Team. Others focus on individuals and pairs such as the "wound care nurse," spiritual care, music therapists, social workers and "Glenda: The Lady with the Menus."

"Stephen is an extraordinary young man who has a special place in all our hearts," says Mackenzie Hui, a registered nurse on the unit. "The nurses would sing and dance with Stephen down the hall, playing motivational music videos and belting out empowering song lyrics together.

"Stephen expressed himself through art and song, which helped him overcome the unknown. It was Stephen's strong faith and our team's unconditional support that helped him triumph over the obstacles he faced during this challenging time in his life."

At his going away party, Stephen offered a guided tour to staff, patients and visitors of the sketches taped on the walls. There was also a sing-along of some of his favourite songs performed by music therapist SarahRose Black and Dr. David Loach, a medical oncologist and musician.

It was a fitting way for Stephen to end his lengthy stay on the unit, which spanned almost nine months, as he treated this day, like he did all the others, as a gift.

Stephen with staff members
Stephen, pictured here with some of the staff of the bone marrow transplant units at the cancer centre, is described by one member of the team as “an extraordinary young man who has a special place in all our hearts.” (Photo: UHN)

Stephen was a regular at the three weekly allogenic stem cell transplant rehabilitation group classes. He was always upbeat, introducing himself at the start of each session, saying how much he enjoyed the gathering and motivating other patients to stay positive and give their best efforts to get better.

"It was neat to watch him encourage others in the group to share their own feelings and experiences," says Margie, the OTA/PTA. "And with staff, he always promoted us, made us feel good about our work."

Margie, along with occupational therapists Lyndsey De Souza and Becky Jin, led the Wednesday Relaxation Group, where Stephen particularly enjoyed the guided imagery exercise, which has participants picture a peaceful place. For Stephen, that was in a park with friends.

"Those who encounter Stephen automatically catch his positive spirit and fun nature and are left with a smile on their face," says Margie, who often joined him for meditation sessions taking place in front of a wall of sunflowers on the unit.

For his part, Stephen says "it's been a long road" but the key is not letting your circumstance rule you.

"The main thing I do to get through this is stay positive and think happy thoughts even when times get tough," he says. "And, keep on smiling."​

Stephen meditating with OTA Margie Espino
Stephen and Margie Espino, an occupational therapy/physiotherapy assistant at the Princess Margaret, regularly meditated in front of a wall of sunflowers on the bone marrow transplant unit. (Photo: Courtesy Margie Espino)

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