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A Lesson Before Dying

In her senior year of college, a doctor told her she was terminally ill. But even as she struggled to make peace with death, she resolved to live.

As I regained consciousness in the chilly hospital room, the first sound I heard was my mother’s sobbing. Gone was the reassuring tone she’d used the night before when I’d called to tell her the doctor believed something was wrong with me. I’d asked her to fly from New York to Tallahassee, Florida, where I was about to graduate college, to be with me for follow-up tests. Now the doctor spoke the words that would transform my life: “Ms. Miller, you have end-stage cirrhosis brought on by autoimmune hepatitis. You need a liver transplant right now.”

A relatively uncommon disease, autoimmune hepatitis is a malfunction in which the body begins to destroy its own liver. In my case, only a transplant would arrest the disease, but as an O blood type I could only receive a new organ from an O donor, severely reducing my chances. If I lived, I would be on medication for the rest of my life, with frequent blood tests to monitor toxins the liver produces when under attack.

My physical symptoms—the nausea, fatigue, swelling and dizziness—were the least of it. My body had betrayed me. Life as I knew it was over. I cried more that first day than I had during my entire 21 years. It was my mother’s softly determined voice that finally stopped the torrent of tears. “Self-pity is not a viable option,” she said. “Certain things will always be out of your control, but it is up to you to determine whether you’ll face them with dignity or with fear.”

Her quiet words reached through my desolation, focusing me on the need to meet my situation with calm faith. Already one of my closest confidantes, my mother now became the rock on which I would stand. Over the next week, we researched my illness and which transplant centers had the highest survival rates. In time, we even planned my funeral, which I envisioned as an upbeat memorial with music and celebration. No topic, including my wish to have my body donated to science, was off-limits.

Back in New York, I learned the most difficult lesson of my illness—what I wanted didn’t always matter. Despite my critical status, my parents’ insurance company denied coverage because I was 21, forcing me to apply for public assistance. My high school sweetheart ended our five-year relationship, saying he “couldn’t handle the pressure” of watching me die. When I asked my doctor how long I had to live, he said three months. I laughed and switched to Westchester Medical Center upstate, where the staff was more optimistic about my survival.

Initially, I had railed at God, crying “Why me?” But the more I meditated and prayed, the more I understood that this was just one of life’s tests, a trial I had been given. So I would sit in my room before my private altar, on which I had placed containers of clear water and a lighted candle, and I would ask God, not to spare my life, but to grant me easy passage. That became my prayer. I was learning to relinquish control over the outcome and focus instead on finding joy in each moment. Even during those months when I was bedridden, I would wake up grateful for each new day, and I would pray for acceptance of God’s will for me.

After 18 months, when my liver could no longer function, the veins in my esophagus ruptured, causing me to vomit blood uncontrollably. This happened right after I’d finally convinced my mom to take a vacation, leaving me alone for the first time. My father came as soon as he could but there was little he could do. By the time an ambulance arrived, I had lost almost three pints of blood. For five days, with my dad filling in for my mom, I floated in and out of consciousness. At one point, I even flatlined. At last I was stabilized enough to be transferred to an intensive care unit. Miraculously, that same night an O-positive donor liver became available. As God would have it, my crisis had moved me to the top of the donor list, and the next morning, June 30, 1998, I underwent my long-awaited transplant.

The day I received my transplant, my life started over, and I’m here to say it’s the best one ever. Being forced to confront my mortality has allowed me to live fearlessly, to take the leaps of faith required to meet life on my terms. And so, days after my thirtieth birthday, I calmly left an unfulfilling corporate job to write books and screenplays full-time. Money is unpredictable, but my happiness is constant. I remember to cherish my family, be selective with friends and romantic partners, laugh often, and pause to enjoy the greeting of an elderly neighbor. My illness has taught me, beyond any cliché, that tomorrow is not promised. But I no longer worry about that, because today is all mine.

Mitzi Miller is the coauthor of
The Vow (Amistad). Her new teen book series, Hotlanta, will be released in spring 2008.

For more information on organ donation, go to unos.org.