In his brief 14 years, Michael Gerard Miller thrived on helping others, whether buying pop and candy for friends or showing new snowboarders how to make it down the slopes.
And, said his father, the Lake Tapps teen enjoyed being at the center of attention. “He liked the limelight a little bit,” said the boy’s dad, Mike Miller.
So the youth, who was known to everyone as M.G., would be proud that he’s one of 76 organ donors to be honored on a float in the Rose Parade in Pasadena this New Year’s Day, Miller said.
“I think he’d be happy to know that out of tragedy came some good,” the father said. “He was always helping people, and those who were struggling. He was very compassionate.”
The youth’s final gift was delivered posthumously in 2003. The youth saved the lives of five people who received his liver, lungs, heart and two kidneys. His gravestone reads “The Good Samaritan.”
Portraits of the Lake Tapps Middle School student and the other donors will be part of a float sponsored by Donate Life America, an organization that promotes donation of organs, eyes and tissue. Designed with the theme “New Life Rises,” the float features a phoenix, the mythical symbol of life summoned from the ashes of death, rising from a bed of flames 30 feet into the sky.
The donors’ “floragraphs,” – portraits decorated with dried flowers and other organic materials – are integrated into the tail of the phoenix.
M.G. is the first Pierce County donor chosen by Donate Life Today to be recognized on the float, which the national Donate Life America has sponsored for seven years. Donate Life Today maintains the official registry of prospective organ, eye and tissue donors in Washington and Montana, said Andrea Gregg, the group’s community relations director.
“We selected M.G. because his gift of life saved the lives of five people,” Gregg said, “and because his family has been very outspoken about the good that’s come to them realizing that their son’s passing resulted in saving the lives of other people. ”
M.G.’s father, a commercial banker, speaks about his son, on behalf of Donate Life Today, to driver education students. He tells them that 1,500 people in Washington need a transplant, and that 18 people a day die nationwide waiting for a transplant. He tells them one donor can change the lives of 50 people,
“I try to get them to realize that putting themselves on the list of organ donors might be something they want to do. I don’t try to force them,” the father said. “Most are 15-and-a-half (years old). This is the best time to tell them about it.”
Drivers can designate their willingness to donate organs on their driver’s license. The information is transmitted to Donate Life Today, which also registers donors directly. “When someone is deceased, then the registry is checked to determine whether someone is a registered donor,” Gregg said.
Mike, his wife, Suzanne Smith-Miller, and their 20-year-old son Randall Miller flew to Pasadena earlier this month to decorate M.G.’s portrait.
The process started with a computerized image from a photo of the youth’s face. Next, as they sat among scores of other donor family members, the Millers took turns using a paint brush to glue down organic materials, such as coffee grounds for M.G.’s dark hair, poppy seeds for his braces or sage for his green eyes.
The family plans to return to Pasadena on Dec. 30 to help finish decorating the float and then watch the parade.
It’s another step in the family’s journey toward healing.
“He committed suicide. At first it was hard to say the word; I’ve been working very hard,” the father said. Explaining that he’s Catholic, Miller added, “I still think God has a place for him in heaven.”
One day in March 2003, Randall came home from school to find his older brother dying. The then-13-year-old performed CPR for 10 minutes until paramedics arrived; Randall later received a commendation from the paramedics.
“Because his brother gave him CPR long enough, he kept oxygen going to his organs,” their father said. “His brother did everything right.” M.G. lay in a coma for three days until his death at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma“. They supported us every step of the way through the most difficult time,” Suzanne Smith-Miller said in a news release. “Just knowing some good has come out of the loss of our son has brought us great comfort.” The family doesn’t know what drove M.G. to take his life, his father said. But they know a bit about the people who received his organs.
M.G.’s two kidneys went to a 48-year-old mother in Seattle and a 52-year-old college student in Montana. A retiree in Maine received his liver, while a grandfather in California received both lungs. The youth’s heart was transplanted into a 53-year-old father of two in British Columbia.
Donate Life Today facilitates communication between donor families and recipients but each party must agree at each step how much information to share, Gregg said. When both sides decide they want to meet, the group helps arrange the meeting.
Since M.G.’s donation, the recipients and Millers have corresponded through letters passed through donor agencies. Last year, the family shared M.G.’s name with the recipients. And in October, six years after their son’s death, the Millers shared his picture, the funeral eulogy and news about the Rose Parade float. They offered to meet, and are waiting to hear if the recipients will agree.
In the meantime, the recipients and the Millers can watch for M.G. on the floral-adorned phoenix this New Year’s Day. They can share one more memory of the teen who liked to help others.