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Upminster eight-year-old with Down’s syndrome and her furry best friend nominated for special Crufts award

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 February 2019

Milli Gunn with dog Emma

Milli Gunn with dog Emma

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An eight-year-old girl from Upminster with Down’s syndrome, and her furry best friend, are finalists in the Crufts Friends for Life competition.

Eight-year-old Milli Gunn from Upminster and her hairy best friend Emma. Photo: Ben Langdon/Dogs for GoodEight-year-old Milli Gunn from Upminster and her hairy best friend Emma. Photo: Ben Langdon/Dogs for Good

At four weeks old, Milli Gunn developed bronchiolitis and was taken into intensive care where it was discovered she had a hole in her heart that spanned all four chambers – a condition called complete AVSD which requires open-heart surgery.

Despite the diagnosis being very serious, it wasn’t immediately life-threatening and Milli was able to return home to Deyncourt Gardens to recuperate, rest and gather as much strength as she could before going in for surgery.

She was admitted to Great Ormond Street and underwent open-heart surgery at four months old.

Her dad, Steve Gunn, who calls Milli his “little diamond”, said that during the operation “we nearly lost her a few times. My wife, Chris and I were numb and holding it together was really tough.”

Steve Gunn with daughter Milli and EmmaSteve Gunn with daughter Milli and Emma

He added: “The worst time was when she flatlined – she was looking at me and then her eyes went blank. Absolutely the worst moment of my life.”

But Milli pulled through, and was eventually discharged and life – albeit a changed way of life – continued afresh.

Six-monthly check-ups followed but after a few years, a couple of things were becoming a concern.

Milli would be out of breath when she was playing on the trampoline and would also go clammy because of the breathlessness.

Milli Gunn and her dad Steve, with their latest addition to the family, golden Retriever Emma. Photo: Ben Langdon/Dogs for GoodMilli Gunn and her dad Steve, with their latest addition to the family, golden Retriever Emma. Photo: Ben Langdon/Dogs for Good

Her doctors investigated and the family were told that at five years old, she would require a second open-heart surgery.

Chris went online to find out what support there was available for families with a child with disabilities and came across Dogs for Good.

The charity is the first UK assistance dog organisation to provide assistance dogs for children with disabilities.

The family applied, and in November 2017, after an interview, a home visit and months of work to find the right partner for Milli, the charity paired her up with Emma, a golden retriever, and now one of her best friends.

Milli Gunn with dog EmmaMilli Gunn with dog Emma

Just over a year later and Emma’s specialist training means that she is able to carry out a series of helpful tasks for her beloved friend such as retrieving Milli’s medicated drinks for her when she’s lost them and delivering soothing “head rests” when Milli gets out of breath and anxious.

Steve said: “Emma has become a focal point and through this Milli has been able to find the confidence to talk to people, which in turn has increased her friendship circle.

“While Milli is a bubbly, happy and confident child within the known environment of her family and close friends, she used to be quite different outside of that sphere.

“It’s almost like Emma’s turned a light on for Milli and given her the confidence to shine as brightly out in the wider world as she does at home.”

Steve Gunn with daughter Milli and EmmaSteve Gunn with daughter Milli and Emma

As well as the practical side of life, Steve has seen some marked improvements in Milli’s confidence and overall happiness since Emma’s arrival.

“As soon as Milli’s home from school, she piles in for a big cuddle with Emma and spends lots of time talking to her and stroking her which really helps to bring down her anxiety,” he explains.

Milli and Emma are one of the five finalists in this year’s Kennel Club Friends for Life competition. The winner will be announced in the main arena at Crufts on Sunday, March 10.

The pair made it through as the judges’ favourite for the hotly-contested Hero Assistance Dog category.

Milli Gunn with dog EmmaMilli Gunn with dog Emma

The winner of the competition will receive £5,000 from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust for the dog charity of the choice, with the other finalists receiving £1,000 for their chosen dog charity.

The Friends for Life overall winner is decided by a public vote; so, to vote for Emma and Milli, visit http://www.crufts.org.uk/ffl.


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