A Young Man’s Legacy: Coices of Independence and Donation
I. “Everybody loved Danial, and he loved everyone.”
When Danial Miller was born with spina bifida, the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the United States, his mother, Terri, decided she would do whatever it took to give him a “normal and independent life.” And by all accounts, he had just that. Danial used a wheelchair, but he also learned to drive, went to prom, played piano (“Lean On Me” was his favorite song), wrestled for the Hillsboro High School team, and started college coursework.
In the small, rural town of Hillsboro, Illinois, Danial was well-known, and the community embraced him. Hillsboro may not be the most accessible place on Earth for someone with a disability, but this did not prevent Danial from making an impact there. “He felt empathy for others,” Terri said. “He would talk his friends through the problems they were facing.” It is most certainly Danial’s abilities to give of himself to others and excel in his many interests that make his life so memorable.
II. “This is what I want to do.”
What wasn’t simply “normal” about Danial’s life was his interest in and success at sled hockey. Sled hockey is an adaptation of ice hockey that involves equipment altered to enable people with physical disabilities to skate and play.
While at a St. Louis Cardinals game, the Miller family was approached by a representative of the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA), who asked if Danial liked sports. He responded, “I love sports, but I can’t play much.” And with that, the Millers’ relationship with DASA was formed. What would begin with a DASA-sponsored kayak outing eventually led to Danial joining the St. Louis Blues Sled Hockey team.
The first time Danial got off the ice rink, he knew sled hockey was for him. “It changed his life,” Terri said. “On the ice he could do the things he wanted to do. His disability was gone on the ice.” Excelling at hockey improved his self-esteem and self-confidence. In fact, Danial’s team went on to win the national championship in Dallas, Texas in April 2012 by defeating the Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime.
III. “I’ve lived with a disability. If someone could give me a gift to heal me, you bet I’d take it, and I’d be so grateful for it.”
Part of the independent life Danial led involved learning to drive. The Millers hired an instructor from the St. Louis area to teach him to drive on a vehicle modified so as to be driven entirely with his hands. When he got his license, Danial made the choice to sign up for Illinois’ state donor registry. “He was clear on what he wanted to do,” Terri said.
When Danial died last June of complications related to his condition, just two weeks after his eighteenth birthday, there was no question in Terri’s mind that he would become an eye, organ, and tissue donor. He was able to save and improve the lives of numerous people by donating his corneas, kidneys, pancreas, liver, and heart valves as well as other tissues for spina bifida research.
Danial’s cousin had received a cornea transplant a year before he passed away, so he understood firsthand just how much eye donation can help another person. The Miller family had summer plans to go to the Gulf of Mexico so Danial could finally experience the ocean, and, as it turns out, his corneas were placed in Hawaii. In a way, Terri said, “he got to see the ocean.”
IV. The Danial Miller Memorial Fund
His legacy of giving lives on in the Danial Miller Memorial Fund. Begun by Terri soon after Danial’s passing, the fund is committed to helping eliminate barriers to independent living for people with disabilities, and it supports programs that allow them to live more fulfilling lives through greater opportunities. Terri uses the fund as a clearinghouse to donate to other causes. Some organizations the fund has already supported include St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Hillsboro Runners Club. And in the future, Terri would like to give to DASA Sports, the Spina Bifida Association, and Shriners Hospitals for Children and to fund projects in her community that support activities and accessibility for disabled people. To learn more and to support the fund, you can visit www.danialmiller.com.
Danial’s legacy also illustrates the lasting benefits of eye, organ, and tissue donation. “I buy into the idea of donation,” Terri said. “Nobody gave up on Danial even though he was a donor.” His decision to be a donor has significant longterm effects in the lives of his recipients, including the gift of sight, the gift of life, and the potential for advancements in spina bifida treatment. They’ll regain the independence Danial and his family were always choosing to pursue. As Terri put it, “Danial’s whole life was about choosing life,” and as a donor, he’s done just that.