Family, friends inspired by Rocky Hill man battling Spinal Muscular Atrophy

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STORRS--Rocky Hill native Justin Miller, who now lives in Storrs near the UConn campus, was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when he was a year old. SMA impacts a person's motor skills, muscles and nervous system, including the spinal cord, and eventually the ability to eat, talk or breath. SMA research is funded by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, though they are separate diseases.

"As he gets older, he gets weaker," explains Justin's sister, Heather Miller. "It affects the organs. It affects his lungs, his ability to swallow and speak."

On Sunday, Justin's family threw him a party for receiving an honorary degree from UConn.

Heather also had a surprise for her big brother -- a video message from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Heather had successfully started an online campaign and hashtag to attract Brady's attention.

"I know you're a big Patriots fan, but after learning about your story I'm an even bigger fan of you and all that you've overcome," Brady said. "So I'll be rooting for you this season, and hope the Patriots can give you and your family some great memories and plenty to celebrate all year long. So we'll be wishing you the very best."

Heather said her brother was stunned to receive the message. "He couldn't believe it," said Miller. "He didn't even think it was real. I think none of us believed it was real."

She said she has not seen her brother so happy in a very long time. "I don't think I've seen him that happy, except when he met the Power Rangers at Disney when we were little kids," joked Miller.

Justin's best friend Megan Flanagan came 800 miles from North Carolina to be at Sunday's party. "I drove through the night from North Carolina this Thursday night into this Friday morning," said Flanagan.

She decided to make the drive after receiving a text message from Justin saying that his condition had progressed. Doctors recently found an inoperable cyst in Justin's throat.

Despite his medical issues, Miller and Flanagan say Justin remains happy, stubborn and determined to stay positive.

"He has a tattoo on his knee," explained Miller. "It has the handicapped symbol in the middle and there's a spade around it and it says, 'It's not the cards you're dealt, it's how you play them,'" said Miller.

"He has been dealt one of the worst hands that I've ever seen, and he just finds a way to do it," added Flanagan.

Flanagan believes Justin's outlook on life can be a lesson to us all. "You're given a new day," said Flanagan. "Do something with it. So, you know, being happy, it's not difficult right now because he's here, and we're all really happy and really at peace with that."

Click here for a link to Justin's Go Fund Me page.