Losing a sister, saving a life

Senior Sara Miller became an organ donor advocate after her sister's death and the family's decision to donate her liver

Washington University in St. Louis graduating senior and SODA founder Sara Miller welcomed the recipient of her sister’s liver to campus to discuss the importance of organ donation. (Video by Tom Malkowicz) 

A campus classroom may seem like an odd spot to consider organ donation. But trust Sara Miller when she tells you it is better than a hospital waiting room. That’s where she and her family made the decision eight years ago to donate the liver of Miller’s older sister, Laura, who had been declared brain-dead days after being diagnosed with cancer at age 14.

“The hospital is the worst place to have these discussions,” the Washington University in St. Louis senior told classmates during the fall meeting of Student Organ Donation Advocates (SODA). “That’s why I helped create this organization. I wanted to bring light to the importance of organ donation so that when others have to make a decision — whether it’s a yes or a no — they are making it from a point of clarity and education.”

Miller is one of about 300 students who will participate in the December Degree Candidate Recognition Ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 2, in the Athletic Complex. She will graduate with a degree in health-care management from Olin Business School.

Miller arrived at the university eager to join a club that promotes organ donation. When she learned that no such organization existed, she started one herself, with the help of two upperclassmen and the support of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.

Since then, she has trained 50 volunteers and hosted more than 30 events, including registration drives, conversations with bioethicists, panels with transplant surgeons and events with donors and recipients.

At a meeting this fall, Miller welcomed a very special organ recipient: Trish O’Neill, the schoolteacher who received Laura’s liver. They told students the story of their friendship and dispelled some of the myths surrounding organ donation, such as that certain faiths reject organ donation and that potential donors do not receive the same lifesaving measures as nondonors. 

When a classmate asked Miller if her family experienced any unexpected consequences, she did not hesitate. 

“The biggest surprise for us is how organ donation has helped us heal and to recover more fully,” Miller told the audience. “And then there is the gift of Trish’s friendship. We like to joke that we would be friends with her even if she didn’t have my sister’s liver.”

After graduation, Miller plans to work in health-care management, where she hopes to focus on the patient experience. Fellow leaders will continue SODA’s mission at Washington University. Miller will stay involved with SODA, too, guiding the expansion of SODA to Marquette University, in her hometown of Milwaukee.

“I am proud that SODA has created a dialogue about organ donation on campus,” Miller said. “I came here knowing this is what I wanted to do. WashU gave me the leadership skills and the support I needed to make it happen.”

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