‘I’d do it again if I could, but you can only do it once’
When Ryan Miller needed a new kidney, there was a long line of people willing to donate one – including his younger brother, Steven.
Diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease at the age of 14, Ryan was told he would need a new kidney or require dialysis treatments when he was 32 years old.
“We tested a lot of people. A lot of family and friends were willing to get tested to see if they could be a donor,” said Whitney Miller, Ryan’s wife. “Steven came back as a perfect match.”
Getting the two of them together was a slightly larger challenge. Their father served on the U.S. Coast Guard, and the family was always stationed somewhere along the coast. Both grew up with a love of the water. As a kid, Ryan would see the huge freighters come into the port at Norfolk, Virginia and think: I want to do that. For Steven, it was the thought of being paid to travel.
Both men followed their dreams: Ryan is a second mate on a freighter in the Great Lakes, serving as navigator and supervising the loading and unloading of the boat. Steven is an electrician on ocean-bound freighters, servicing refrigeration units, elevators and conveyor systems while they are out at sea. Ryan is away from home for about 60 days at a time, while Steven is out for 120 days at a time.
That schedule only increased the urgency for the procedure. Although Ryan was on the waiting list to receive a new kidney, the family knew might take years to find a matching donor that way. His health condition made the prospect of being on the water for two months at a time a dicey proposition. When everything came together between deployments six years ago, Steven said was ready.
“I didn’t really think too much about it. I had two and he needed one,” said Steven, who was 27 at the time. “It wasn’t much of a question, really. It was more of a question of who in the family would give it to him.”
Ryan, however, was a little surprised that his younger brother had volunteered.
“It was pretty surreal. There’s a six-year age difference and we were never close growing up,” Ryan said. “I didn’t really expect it, but it’s the kind of man he is – he’s a very selfless person.
“We’ve since become best friends,” Ryan added. “It kind of brought us together as friends and brothers.”
The transplant was scheduled for Nov. 18, 2015, and went off without a hitch. It was in the nick of time, too. Ryan’s kidneys weighed about 10 pounds each and had to be removed. He was so ill he could hardly eat.
“He was in pretty bad shape,” Whitney said. “His kidneys looked like burnt lasagna; it was pretty gross.”
Although Ryan’s initial recovery was difficult, he hasn’t been hospitalized in the six years since the transplant. He stringently followed his post-transplant instructions and soon went back to work. Steven, who had always been healthy, bounced back right away. He said he can’t even see the scar from the surgery.
“It wasn’t a bad experience, at all,” Steven said. “I’m just glad I could do it. I’d do it again if I could, but you can only do it once. It cost me so little, and it helped someone else out so much.”
The family celebrates the anniversary along with Thanksgiving every year and the younger Miller sometimes teases his brother by squeezing his left side to send ‘phantom kidney pain’ to his older brother – all in good fun, he said, because “that’s what brothers do.”
They also encourage friends and family to sign up on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, so they may help others in their time of need.
“It’s important to see how easily a transplant can help people become healthy,” Whitney said. “I try to put that into people’s minds: look at how sick Ryan was and look at him now. One kidney did that.”