George Miller receives letter from donor’s family

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“April 21st, 2009 – Double lung transplant. January 21st, 2010 – I am alive and well. Thank you Lord, thank you donor, and thank you family and friends for all the thoughts and prayers that are indeed answered. I love you all,” are entries from a website George Miller and his wife, Barb, of Patriot, use to keep friends and family connected during his serious illness.

Diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in 1990, the complications from this disease, along with his work environment, failure to stop smoking, chronic bronchitis and infections led to emphysema. All of these factors also increased his risk of developing lung cancer.

George had already suffered a heart attack in 2000, and in the fall of 2001 received a phone call from his doctor saying a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan had indicated a very aggressive small cell cancer in his lungs and lymph nodes. A biopsy was ordered before the oncologist would proceed with any type of treatment. Although George’s lung collapsed during the test, it did not reveal cancer nor did a bone marrow check.

While George was now considered a transplant candidate, the doctors continued looking for cancer. It was crucial for his treatment that they get this diagnosis right.

His wife stated they “nearly killed him” trying to prove that he did not have cancer. It was finally determined that George had a type of pulmonary fibrosis disease – the lesser of two evils, but a welcomed diagnosis as it was more treatable than cancer.

George was hesitant on the whole transplant idea explaining that he had done this to himself by smoking and not taking work related precautions. Not only did he feel unworthy of a gift of life, he thought by getting a transplant he would start his “death clock”, thinking of it in terms of the last straw. Without a transplant however, he had been given about five years to live – the thought of having a longer life was almost too hard for him to comprehend.

A pulmonary rehabilitation therapist named Paul at Dearborn County Hospital convinced George otherwise. Paul explained that he was way too young to give up the fight. He also noted that 22 years ago his own cousin had a lung transplant. Had he not gone back to smoking, Paul believed his relative would have lived far longer that the 17 years allotted him due to his transplant.

Having a rare blood type and elongated lungs made the likelihood of finding a matching donor even more of a challenge for George. When he went on the list in August 2008, only one other person was ahead of him waiting for the same type of donor. George’s health was deteriorating quickly, having had two episodes of respiratory failure from the time of the biopsy until his transplant operation.

When the other person received their lung transplant, George moved up to the number one slot. Although this was good news, it was tainted with the knowledge that another donor matching his specifications may not come along anytime soon. Everything must click for any transplant to be successful, but even more so with lungs because they must be implanted quickly and be viable for transfer with no signs of bruising or damage.

On January 10th, 2009 the call they had been waiting for transpired and they hurriedly made the two hour drive to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The transplants were in New York, the Millers would get hourly updates as they got closer to Indiana. Eventually they received the bad news – the lungs had deteriorated and never made it off the ground. Disappointed – but not overly so – they had known this was a possibility. Somewhat prepared to hear this report and knowing the odds were not in their favor, they chose to view it as a trial run. They now knew more of what to expect for the next time.

That time would come again on April 20th, 2009.

George had just walked into the house after a dental appointment to hear the caller saying, “We’ve got a set of lungs.” George could only reply, “Say again?” When the caller repeated the message, he knew he had heard right the first time. When told they didn’t have to rush, it was apparent to them the donor was local to the Indiana area.

With not much time for feelings, there were many calls to be made and a lot of praying to do. Later, thoughts of exhilaration, happiness and anxiousness entered the picture along with a sense that this time there was no doubt it was going to work out.

Within six hours of arrival, George was in surgery and in another seven hours he was in ICU for recovery. Within days he was sitting up in his chair preparing for his departure from the hospital and looking forward to his arrival home.

Prior to the surgery George had no longer known how to take deep breaths – now he was not sure if his new lungs were working well or not. A yawn and a sneeze later in the day gave him the evidence he needed; he indeed had an increased breathing capacity. It wasn’t long before George was mowing his lawn, something he had not been able to do in years.

The day of this interview George Miller had walked three miles in preparation for the 5K River Walk/Run during the Swiss Wine Festival in August. This is a remarkable feat considering just a little over a year ago he could barely walk across the room and was limited in steps directly proportionate to the length of the tubes that tied him to his oxygen tank. George knows there are many people to thank for being able to go from a near invalid state to a fully functioning human being. But, the person he feels most thankful for is named John.

“My husband’s name was John. He would have been 48 on April 2nd. He was born in West Virginia, but also lived in Ohio and Indiana,” reads excerpts from a letter from the donor’s wife. She mentions John’s love of sports and the fact that he was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and briefly picked up by the Detroit Tigers after trying to rehab from an injury. She describes her late husband as “incomparable” noting that word is defined as “unequal or matchless”. The couple had been married 13 years and has three children.

She continues her incomparable message by saying, “John’s drive and discipline to reaching goals was incomparable. He always viewed obstacles and sacrifices as opportunities. And those opportunities to him were building blocks to becoming a better person. He was always striving to become a better father, husband, coach, writer, business man, and finally a man of God. I admit I have struggled with God on the untimely reason for my husband’s death. But, I will say this, I thank God for all of you (recipients) and you have provided me hope and peace that I didn’t think I would have. I wish you continued good health.”

George makes this oath to John and his family, “I promise to you that I will never waste one moment of my life. John is with me, literally, with every breath I take.”

Having had “paid it forward,” the Miller family has been on the other side of the donor/recipient coin. Their son Chris, now a United States Marine, was a twin. Their other son died five hours after birth, with the Millers having donated his corneas for transplantation. The eye bank called thanking them for their “gift of sight” to someone. Today, George lives with a “gift of life” he received from yet another hero.

Each day, about 77 people receive organ transplants. However, 19 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs. Help your family understand your wish to be an organ and tissue donor before a crisis occurs. Register at the BMV when you obtain or renew your driver’s license or sign up to receive a donor’s card at www.organdonor.gov. Transplantation is considered to be the best treatment option for thousands of patients every year.

-Channie Smith