Not all Heroes Wear Capes
WHEELING — Organ donations: two words most people do not want to talk about. Ultimately it means someone is dying or has died. Maybe that person is a registered organ donor because he or she checked off “organ donor” on his or her driver’s license. And for many families, they never find that out until someone is declared brain dead, either from an accident or illness.
Knowing how to handle such situations — when families are at their worst grief — takes someone medically trained with a great deal of tact, understanding and sensitivity. Ohio County mother Jody Miller knows all about it. Miller is the mother of the late Heather Miller who died at 21 in 2008, a few weeks before graduating from nursing school at West Virginia University. Her death, while a tragic accident, also brought her parents face-to-face with the concept of organ donations.
“Heather signed her driver’s license to be an organ donor. It really didn’t hit us until we were approached in the hospital. You can’t imagine all the things that happened … and fast … (so they could procure Heather’s organs and tissue),” Miller said.
As a nursing student, Heather was aware of the importance of organ donations and made the decision to be a donor. Her generosity allowed four people to receive life-saving organs of a heart, liver and lungs, and others with tissue and bone donations.
“On our worst day, it was someone else’s best day. Her very last thing on Earth was she gave life,” Miller said through the tears that still flow easily for the loss of her firstborn. Miller and husband Gary also have a daughter, Sarah, and sons, Nathan and Samuel.
Miller said she learned so much about organ donations through CORE — the Center for Organ Recovery and Education — that one year after Heather’s death, she and her family got involved. It meant Miller and husband Gary traveling to CORE events that included tributes to Heather for all the people she helped.
Miller explained that U.S. Transplant Games, sponsored by the National Kidney Foundation, are held every two years for people who have received organs and now compete in athletic events. She and her family attended the event in Salt Lake City, Utah last year. The Millers have met several of the recipients of Heather’s organs in recent years.
“When we go to these things I feel she is there. Heather has taken us to so many places,” Miller said.
At Salt Lake, she met Robert Horsey, a critical care registered nurse, a certified clinical transplant coordinator and author. His experiences in the field of organ procurement and transplantation prompted him to also a write a book that allows the reader to understand all aspects of organ donation through a real-to-life experience. His book, “Gifted,” tells the story of a family faced with a tragedy involving a promising, young athlete that brings out the worst and best of human frailities.
In a summary of the book, the author says the story ultimately “begs you to answer the question: If given the opportunity to save the lives of eight total strangers, would you? Could you?”
Miller said meeting Horsey was a gift. “He listened to our story. He knew our pain. I saw his passion for helping families and for organ donations.”
Horsey lives in Carmel, Indiana, where he is on the staff of the Indiana Donor Network as an organ recovery coordinator. He will travel to Wheeling for the 12th annual Heather Miller Golf Classic set for Friday, July 26 at Crispin Golf Course, Oglebay Park. During his visit to the area, Horsey will hold a book signing at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where Miller is a member of Team Allegheny, a spinoff group of CORE. He also will spend time at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown where he will meet with nurses for a “lunch and learn” presentation.
Horsey said he wrote the book to bring attention to organ donations and transplantation to dispel many of the myths about the process.
“Social media and movies make it out that the rich get preference for an organ or if you have a heart on your driver’s license they won’t work to save you if you are in an accident. All of that is just not true,” Horsey said. “I felt the need to spread awareness.”
He pointed out that there are very clear conditions under which a person can be an organ donor. Horsey noted only 1 percent of people die in such a way to be an organ donor. “It is rare,” he added.
While Horsey’s medical work is dealing mostly with the donor in a clinical setting, there is interaction with family members. The book has given Horsey an opportunity to travel and meet families such as the Millers.
“It’s meeting people like Jody that continue to inspire me. I am now working on a documentary. It’s something I am passionate about because we know it’s the right thing to do for other people to receive the gift of life,” Horsey said. “It’s cathartic for the family because it changes the legacy of their loved one — whatever their lot in life — now they are heroes.”
At the golf tournament in Wheeling, Horsey will be signing copies of his book and interacting with the participants and visitors. Miller said he will make a donation toward the WVU School of Nursing Foundation Scholarship that provides college money for nursing students at WVU. To date, the Millers have raised funds to support more than 150 nursing scholarships to local students.
“Some of the girls who received the scholarships are now nurses working in the operating room with Dr. (Howard) Shackelford. He was Heather’s doctor and was so supportive of us and still us,” Miller said.
Miller also is active in the community to fight drunken driving. She is responsible for forming the Wheeling Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and can be found handing out pamphlets at DUI checkpoints alongside the law enforcement officers, a group she holds in high regard.
While her grief is always close to the surface, Miller believes Heather’s generosity of being an organ donor paved the way for her to carry on. “I really believe she helped save a lot of lives. There was a turning point in all of this when I said I could sit back and do nothing or do something.”
Miller chose to do something.