Turning Tragedy into Connection, a Donor Family Bonds with a Transplant Recipient

Turning Tragedy into Connection, a Donor Family Bonds with a Transplant Recipient

Turning Tragedy into Connection, a Donor Family Bonds with a Transplant Recipient

When Sara Miller was 12, her sister, Laura, was diagnosed with brain cancer and died within days at a hospital in Milwaukee. Shocked and reeling, Sara’s family was asked by the hospital’s organ procurement coordinator if they wanted to donate Laura’s organs.

The Miller family had never discussed organ donation before, but Sara felt certain that Laura, a high school freshman, would have wanted to help save a life. “I grasped onto the idea that she could potentially make a difference,” says Sara, who encouraged her parents to say yes, which they did. “It was a tiny glimmer of hope amid a terrible day.”

The weeks after Laura’s death passed in a blur as the Millers felt they were enveloped in a cloud of grief. They often wondered if Laura’s organs had helped someone, and if so, whom. Then one day, six months later, a letter arrived in the mail. “It basically said, ‘I’m alive because of your family,’” says Sara.

The Miller family couldn’t have imagined that the brief letter they had received would be the start of a meaningful and unique relationship with the woman who had received Laura’s liver. But that’s exactly what has happened in the nearly 13 years that have passed since Laura’s death enabled Trish O’Neill, a special education teacher in upstate New York, to recover from an 11-day coma triggered by a toxic reaction to her treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia.

Trish was 39 when she was diagnosed with leukemia in April 2008. She was close to remission when she started to feel unbearably nauseous and began to turn yellow. She was admitted to the hospital, where it was determined that she was allergic to Gleevec, which was successfully treating her cancer but irreparably damaging her liver. Within hours, she had slipped into a coma, but the transplant team said she wasn’t eligible for a new organ because she was being treated for cancer. After her oncologist frantically assembled research data showing that medication for cancer and transplant could coexist, Trish was approved as an organ recipient on Feb. 20, 2009. If only she could find a donor, her life could begin again.

At the same time, in the Midwest, Laura Miller’s life had ended. Her liver was flown to New York, earmarked for Trish after her husband, Gary O’Neill, had okayed the transplant, despite being told that the donor liver could contain cancer cells since Laura had died of a brain tumor. Trish, still unconscious, went into surgery at noon on Feb. 22. Four hours later, the transplant surgeon reported to Gary that the operation had been successful. “It’s very rare that I see a liver pink up like that,” the doctor told Gary.

In the months after transplant, Trish gradually regained her strength. The hospital psychologist had encouraged her to write a letter to her donor’s family that would be transmitted via the donor network and then passed on to the family. It is a months-long process by design, carefully managed by psychologists and donor network officials, who make sure each side is willing and prepared to hear from the other. In Trish’s initial communication, she was permitted only to contact the Millers anonymously, share some details of her life and express her gratitude. She wrote about teaching kindergarten and first grade and told the Millers that she is an aerobics instructor who plays soccer and volleyball. “Although I have many hobbies, my true love is family and friends,” Trish wrote. “There are no words to explain how grateful I am to your family. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would love to hear from you and maybe even meet you someday.”

It took a full 18 months post-transplant for the Millers to receive her contact information.


In the waning days of summer in 2010, the phone rang and Trish, packing for a family vacation in the Adirondacks, picked up.

“Is this Trish?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“This is,” Trish answered. She heard the person on the phone say, “It’s her!” followed immediately by, “We’re your donor family and we’re all on the line.”

Gary saw Trish crying and asked what was going on. “It’s them!” Trish replied through her tears.

Trish told the Millers about her life, and the Millers told Trish about their family. “It was pretty euphoric to know that this person was alive because of my sister, so it was a really special phone call for all of us,” says Sara. “Trish is always helping people and that really drew us to her. We immediately felt a connection. I told her we would be friends with you even if you didn’t have our sister’s liver.”

At the end of the phone conversation, they exchanged email addresses and Sara and Trish began corresponding right away, getting to know each other and making plans to meet in the spring of 2011. When they laid eyes on one another in a New York City hotel room, Sara describes it as “an Oprah moment without the camera. We felt an immediate connection.” They sat and talked for hours — Trish and Gary, plus Sara, her younger sister and their parents — and marveled at the overlap in Laura’s and Trish’s stories, how both Laura and Trish had fallen desperately ill so quickly.

Since then, their relationship has continued to build. The Millers joined Trish, Gary and their extended family at their lake house in Pennsylvania. And Trish and Gary joined the Miller family for a walk in Milwaukee in memory of Laura to raise money for organ donation awareness. They exchange holiday cards and talk on the phone several times a year; they’re Facebook friends too. Once, Trish flew to St. Louis to speak at a gathering of the first chapter of Student Organ Donation Advocates (SODA), which Sara launched as a college freshman in 2014. SODA chapters now exist on more than 35 high school and college campuses, teaching students about the importance of organ donation and encouraging them to register as organ donors.

In SODA chapters and beyond, Sara emphasizes the importance of discussing organ donation with family members, normalizing the conversation before an emergency should ever occur. “Our family had this conversation on the worst day of our lives,” says Sara. “We had never talked about it before. That’s pretty common.”

The Millers’ decision to donate Laura’s organs not only saved Trish’s life; it also saved the Millers by forging meaning from tragedy and created an unbreakable bond between two families—especially between Sara and Trish.

Trish describes their relationship as inspirational. “Every single time I see them, I get nervous thinking I want to be the best person I can possibly be, not only because their sister lives within me but because they gave me the greatest gift of all,” she says. “I have a purpose here.”

For her part, Sara likes to think of their friendship as a “beautiful miracle.”

“What I didn’t realize when Laura became an organ donor is that the donor family can feel a sense of receiving a gift at the same time as it is giving a gift,” she says. “When people ask about my sister, I tell them that something tragic happened, but it saved the life of someone who is an inspiring person. We feel like we have built an amazing relationship that has created ripple effects of hope and positivity when it otherwise would have just been a tragedy. I really think that both sides receive a gift.”

Tags: Lifestyle