Laura was Ron Miller’s and Susan Angel Miller’s first-born daughter, a bright and focused 14-year-old who dreamed of being the editor-in-chief of Vogue and whose kindness and sense of justice imbued her pursuits. In one long-ago letter to the tooth fairy, Laura mentioned her two younger sisters and wondered if the tooth fairy might send some of her goodies their way while she was visiting.
On Feb. 18, 2009, one of Laura’s increasingly severe headaches — which her pediatrician initially attributed to stress — caused her to collapse at home. Angel Miller rushed her to the hospital, where they performed a CT scan and discovered a mass in the back of her brain. That was a Wednesday. Surgery was scheduled to remove the cancerous tumor on Friday.
Laura didn’t make it to the surgery. The tumor put so much pressure on Laura’s brain that she stopped breathing. Surgeons placed a shunt in her brain, but the pressure had caused a massive brain bleed from which she never recovered. By Saturday, Laura was declared legally brain dead.
Four days earlier, she’d been in school. Four days earlier, she’d been planning what to say at her sister Sara’s upcoming bat mitzvah.
“It just doesn’t happen,” Angel Miller said. “But it happened to us.”
At their younger daughters’ urging, the Millers decided to donate Laura’s organs, setting off a chain of events that would shape the next decade into a time of healing and affirmation and friendship, in and among the intense grief of losing Laura.
Susan Angel and Ron Miller both grew up in Evanston, but they moved to Milwaukee shortly before starting a family. All three girls were born and raised in Milwaukee, where Susan and Ron remain today — empty nesters, now.
While Laura lay hospitalized in Milwaukee, a 40-year-old special education teacher named Trish O’Neill lay in a coma in New York City. O’Neill was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2008 and her liver was failing. Her medical team placed her on a national transplant list in hopes of finding a viable liver as soon as possible.
The day after Laura died, her liver was removed and flown to New York. On Sunday, while the Millers planned Laura’s funeral and shiva in Milwaukee, O’Neill underwent transplant surgery. Laura’s liver saved her life.
“I have been given a gift that not many get,” O’Neill said. “Not only the gift of living and my liver, but the gift of getting to know the Millers. It feels like we’re family.”
A year and a half after Laura died, the Millers and O’Neills waived the organ donation confidentiality agreement and began communicating by phone and email. In April 2011, the Millers — Susan, Ron, Sara and their youngest daughter, Rachel — flew to New York City to meet the O’Neills — Trish and her husband, Gary — in person. O’Neill was nervous.
“I wanted to be everything they wanted me to be,” she said. “I wanted to rise to their expectations, to be the best person I could be. For me to receive Laura’s organ, I just wanted to make sure I was worthy of it, and I showed them how much that meant to me and my family.”
The Millers adored her immediately.
The families made plans to get together again. The O’Neills visited the Millers in Milwaukee, and the Millers visited the O’Neills’ vacation cottage in Pennsylvania. Sara Miller, now 23, founded Student Organ Donation Advocates (SODA) during her freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis and has an especially close bond with O’Neill — like sisters, O’Neill said, despite the almost 30 years that divide them. In August, the families will get together again in New York.
Angel Miller said the gratitude O’Neill feels is mutual.
“Trish has been an incredibly healing part of our journey,” she said. “You don’t often hear about the gratitude from this side. You hear about the gratitude from the recipient’s side, but not as much from the donor side.”
Angel Miller works with Versiti, Wisconsin’s organ and tissue donation network, to tell her family’s story — Laura’s story — to organ procurement coordinators, other donor families and organ recipients.
“I want the organ recipients to know there’s no reason to feel guilty for having received an organ,” Miller said. “The death of the organ donor was not caused by the person receiving the organ. They sometimes feel guilty that someone had to die in order for them to live. But the two are independent situations. It’s actually a very healing situation for the donor family.”
Angel Miller recently published a book, “Permission to Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth,” to help others who experience trauma or loss. She wants to help people who are grieving feel less alone. She wants to offer a road map for finding support and meaning and hope in the face of tremendous loss. She wants to spread the word about organ donation. She wants to preserve Laura’s memory.
In a cruel twist of fate, Angel Miller was diagnosed with her own brain tumor in November 2012, three and a half years after losing Laura. It was benign and able to be fully removed, but it sent the family back through the spiral of terror they knew all too well.
When Angel Miller recovered, medically, she turned to mindfulness and meditation to regain some emotional balance. She was grateful to be alive, acutely aware of not taking that for granted, but feeling guilty that she was thriving even after suffering the loss of her daughter. She started to explore post-traumatic growth, a body of research that helps people find personal meaning in the trauma they’ve experienced.
“I had been comparing my healing to others’ healing, my suffering to other people’s suffering,” Angel Miller said. “I learned a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt that said, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ ”
She gave herself permission to know joy. It’s another tie that binds her to O’Neill.
“I know that I have to live and love every day,” O’Neill said. “I know that life is short. I love greater and I take care of myself and I appreciate life because of this gift I was given.”
During winter break of Laura’s freshmen year of high school, the Millers visited Israel to tour religious sites and learn about the region’s history. Angel Miller writes about the visit in “Permission to Thrive.”
“Just before we left Israel, we visited the oldest section of Israel’s Western Wall, a sacred relic from the era of the Second Temple,” she writes. “Observing a long-standing tradition, Laura scribbled her hopes and wishes on a piece of paper and inserted it into a crevice between the stones.
“I’ll never know what that paper said, exactly,” Angel Miller continues. “But I believe she wished — as I did — for continued health and happiness for our family and friends.”
O’Neill is a living testament to Angel Miller’s belief. Laura and her kindness live on.