Mike Miller was a healthy 23-year-old. He never got sick. But that all changed suddenly when what he thought was a routine illness put him on a decade-long journey that ended with a kidney transplant at UVA.
Miller thought he had a cold. But when he started coughing up blood, he saw a doctor. He was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Goodpasture’s syndrome, which affects the lung and kidneys.
“I had a complete body shutdown. I couldn’t function,” Miller says. He was admitted to UVA, where he was sedated in the MICU (medical intensive care unit) for five weeks. He had dialysis. A similar process called plasmapheresis removed the harmful antibodies from his body, and immunosuppressive drugs inhibited his immune system “so my body could stop fighting itself.”
There’s no known cause for Goodpasture’s, though exposure to chemicals and viral infections are possible causes, according to the National Institutes of Health.
After five weeks in a hospital bed, Miller had to relearn how to walk, hold a phone and do other everyday activities, so he spent three weeks at UVA HealthSouth for rehabilitation.
But that wasn’t the end of the journey.
A Cure But a Kidney Transplant Ahead
Miller’s Goodpasture’s disease was cured, but his kidneys were permanently damaged. He knew he’d need a kidney transplant some day.
That some day turned out to be 12 years later. Meanwhile, Miller, a project coordinator in the Health System’s Nursing Governance Office, was monitored by doctors at the UVA Kidney Center.
His kidney function decreased over time, causing hypertension and high cholesterol. He also developed glomerulonephritis, a disease in which the small blood vessels in the kidneys are inflamed and less able to filter fluid and waste. “It’s basically just a downward progression over time,” Miller says.
The Kidney Center team checked his blood every three months, looking at his kidney filtration rate and creatinine levels. Over time, the creatinine levels increased from 1.5 to 5.3 (a healthy level is .6 – 1.2 for adult males).
The decreased kidney function affected his energy level. Just going to work was all the activity he could handle for one day. “I had to save up my energy and time.” In December 2010, his Kidney Center team decided it was time for a transplant.
An Organ Donation from a Friend
In January 2011, Miller had his first appointment with UVA’s Transplant Clinic. His mother went with him to take notes and be a second set of ears (a good idea for anyone with a serious diagnosis).
Miller got his name on the waiting list for a kidney. The estimated wait time was seven years.
He told a select group of friends about his situation and his friend Paul Watson, a former UVA employee, volunteered right away. “He said, ‘I’m doing it and there’s not really a choice,’” recalls Miller.
The choice was a simple one, according to Watson: “I said, ‘I’m just going to do it. I’ve got an extra one, and I want you to have it,’ I’m a fixer and I could do this. It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but the most important,” he says.
Miller and Watson were each assigned a separate transplant team with their own transplant coordinator. Watson went through a number of tests to make sure he could donate a kidney to Miller. At each step of his testing, UVA’s Transplant Board evaluated Watson’s results, and after 10 months, he was approved to donate.
Kidney Transplant and Recovery
Miller and Watson went to the hospital for their surgeries on September 22, 2011. Miller’s transplant surgery lasted about three hours and he was in the hospital for one week. He and Watson both were up and walking the next day, which helps with the recovery process and healing.
Miller wasn’t nervous, he said, because he was well prepared by the people of UVA. He took a class and read his transplant handbook. “There was nothing to be surprised about. I wasn’t scared.”
Watson wasn’t nervous, either. “I’ve been around this place my whole life,” he says. “I was convinced because of the care I’ve received here over all of my life. I was born here. I got all of my medical care here growing up. If you’re going to have a transplant, you’re going to have it here.”
Recovery wasn’t easy for Miller, though, and there were setbacks. “It took a whole lot more out of me than I thought it would,” Miller says. “I was living a fairly normal life, working mostly full-time, before the surgery.” But post-surgery, he found himself wondering when he would feel better. “It was a big shock,” he says.
But Miller did start feeling better — gradually. After two months, he realized it wasn’t as difficult to walk up the two flights of stairs to his apartment.
“Now I feel better than I did before my surgery and I’m starting to feel hopeful again,” he says.
Miller still goes in for blood work every week for a full report on how his body is doing. “It’s neat to be so connected, to know exactly what’s going on inside.” He hopes to reach the point where he only needs blood work once a month.
Fannie Utz, RN, is Miller’s post-transplant coordinator. “I’ve been here for almost 30 years, and I’ve taken care of a lot of employees. I treat all of my patients as if they were a family member or how I would want to be treated,” she says. “You develop a bond with them because they feel like they can call on you for anything.”
Support From Fellow UVA Employees
Miller was out of work for three months for the surgery and recovery. His manager, Holly Hintz, coordinated an effort by his coworkers to give him their unused vacation time (short-term disability benefits only paid a portion of his salary). “We have such a culture of doing this [donating vacation time] at UVA,” says Miller. “It’s different to be on the receiving end of it. It’s a big deal.”
Miller works with many UVA nurses as part of his job, and they are the reason he chose UVA, he says.
“It’s why I had my surgery here,” he says. “I trusted in the care I was going to get because I work with so many nurses, so it just made sense to come here. I was looking forward to seeing these people I work with do their job.”
More About Organ Donation: Find out more about organ donation and one man who gave a kidney to a stranger.