Competitive swimmer Dianne Miller watched as her lead in the 200-meter individual medley diminished in last year’s Transplant Games of America.
The 65-year-old, who has earned multiple medals and world records in post-transplant swimming, had built a substantial lead before her arthritic knees lost function in the breaststroke – the third of four strokes in the race.
A lane over, a 39-year-old opponent took advantage, and entering the final stroke of the race, Miller found herself two body lengths behind.
She knew she needed to dig deep. She needed that extra something.
And as she hit the turn and broke into the fourth and final stroke, she knew exactly where to find it – in those familiar words she takes with her into every competition.
“Come on Heather, we can do this,” she thought to herself.
Heather wasn’t one of her family members or friends watching from the stands. She wasn’t a coach who Miller was aiming to please.
In fact, Heather was a girl she’d never met – but one who had saved her life.
That motivation in mind, Miller found her stride again.
“I hit the wall, I went into freestyle, and I said, ‘Heather, it’s now or never,” said Miller. “I hit that turn, and I saw my opponent’s feet. I dug in. Everybody said my shoulders were up, totally out of the water… and I beat her by a body length. The ceiling was coming off that place.”
Nine years prior, Miller probably never thought she would be breaking world records as she did in that race and so many others.
At age 56, Miller had fallen victim to a viral infection that caused acute liver failure, which subsequently shut down every other organ in her body.
“I was kept alive by a respirator for breathing, and one wire down through my shoulder into my heart to keep it going,” said Miller.
Miller was in desperate need of an organ transplant. Her liver had been reduced to the size of a quarter, and time was running out. The hospital she was staying at had a policy; patients who were kept alive by respirators were given a 40-day window before the plug was pulled.
Miller had been there 45 days.
It was on that 45th day she was to be taken off life support.
“That was the day I was going to die,” said Miller.
Then something surreal happened.
A doctor walked into the room and gave Miller’s husband two thumbs up.
A match had been found.
That match came from 22-year-old California resident Heather Travers, a registered organ donor who days prior had been killed in a head-on car collision.
Doctors were forced to hurry during transplantation due to Miller’s critical condition, and they managed to perform an 11-hour surgery in 7.5 hours.
Once all was said and done, Miller would leave the hospital with a functioning body to begin on the road to recovery.
It took Miller three weeks to muster up the courage and the words to say to Heather’s parents. But finally, one day, she walked up to the second floor of her Oro Valley home, and she dialed.
“A lady answered the phone, and I was breathing heavily, and all I could whisper was, ‘Please don’t hang up, this isn’t a prank call,’” said Miller.
On the other end of the line, Heather’s mother immediately knew who it was.
“This is Dianne,” she said.
Miller said, “Oh God, it is. What do I say? How do I say thank you?”
The two spent the next hour and a half talking.
“It was like we were meant to know each other,” said Miller.
Two weeks later, Miller and a friend flew out to meet Heather’s parents, with whom she has kept in touch with ever since, and even brought along to a post-transplant competition.
“That was healing for her, that was the closure she needed,” said Miller.
Miller is considered the fourth fastest post-transplant female swimmer in the United States, holding world records in her age group (which also best many younger age groups’ records) in the short course 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 50-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley, and the long course 50-meter butterfly and 200-meter individual medley.
But when it comes down to it, Miller, who in college swam at the University of Arizona, doesn’t compete to break world records or win gold medals.
She does it to spread the word about the importance of registering as an organ donor.
“We don’t have enough people signing up for the donor registry,” said Miller.
In stressing the importance of registering, Miller works as an advocate for Donate Life America, the United States’ organ, tissue, and cornea donation foundation.
“I start my speeches by asking how many people in the room would accept an organ transplant if they were told they were going to die today,” said Miller. “All the hands go up. Then I ask them how many are on the organ donor registry. So many are willing to accept but not all are willing to donate.”
Registering as an organ donor can immediately save seven lives, Miller added.
As she continues to compete in the U.S. and World Transplant Games in years to come, Miller will also continue to encourage people to register to the organ donor registry.
But more than anything, she will continue to enjoy life, thanks to the generosity of one young woman who thought of saving the life of another before she lost her own.
It’s a favor that Miller doesn’t take lightly, and one that has taught her some valuable life lessons.
“Live every moment to its fullest,” said Miller. “Create your own life. Don’t say no very often – don’t miss those positive opportunities. Just keep going.”