Young actress finds relief after three years of intense abdominal pain
By Leigh Wilkins
Photography by Sonya Revell
va-Riley Miles’ life seemed pretty amazing in the spring of 2015. Just 10 years old, the Miami native was living with her mom in New York City and appearing in her second Broadway musical, “Doctor Zhivago.” Ava-Riley seemed poised for success.
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, she began to suffer debilitating abdominal pain and nausea that made it hard to get out of bed, much less perform in eight shows a week. When the show closed in May, it was almost a relief. Doctors in New York hadn’t been able to help her — maybe it would be different back home in Miami.
Instead, Ava-Riley faced three more years of suffering. She saw 10 different doctors, endured endless tests, and tried restrictive diets, but nothing helped.
“I was miserably sick to my stomach every day. I didn’t have the energy to participate in theater or dance or even spend time with friends,” said Ava-Riley, now 16. “Doctors told me, ‘You’re just going to have to live with this.’ I felt completely hopeless.”
Then in 2018, Ava-Riley’s mom, Susan Trujillo, heard about Miguel Saps, M.D., who had recently joined UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. Dr. Saps, a pediatric gastroenterologist, is one of the world’s top experts on treating patients with chronic abdominal pain. He and his colleagues at UHealth hold a twice-monthly clinic for children with severe abdominal pain. The multidisciplinary clinic offers a variety of treatments, such as medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and hypnotherapy. But what patients appreciate most, Dr. Saps says, is the chance to talk.
“No matter how long it takes, I let the patient tell me about their symptoms — what helps, what doesn’t help,” said Dr. Saps, chief of the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. “I provide a diagnosis, explain the treatment options, and ask what they want to do. If you try to rush the process, no medication or therapy is going to work.”
Dr. Saps diagnosed Ava-Riley with irritable bowel syndrome and prescribed medication and hypnotherapy. Within two months, Ava-Riley’s pain and nausea were gone.
“Finding the right combination of therapies is important, but what patients really need is reassurance and the belief that they will feel better,” Dr. Saps said. “Because of my years of experience, I was able to say to Ava-Riley, ‘I know what you have — I see it all the time. We’ll work as a team, and you’ll do well.’”
The clinic, which attracts patients from across the U.S. and worldwide, is the only one of its kind in Florida. Dr. Saps hopes that with financial support from donors, he’ll be able to hire a dedicated psychologist with special training to help children like Ava-Riley with chronic abdominal pain.
Today Ava-Riley is acting again, and she’s added songwriting to her repertoire of artistic talents. She’s also raising money for the clinic — $11,000 so far — through special events and a fundraising page on UCARE, a peer-to-peer fundraising website at UHealth.
“I’m forever grateful for how Dr. Saps has helped me,” she said. “I’m doing all I can to give back.”