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Board Member Spotlight: Susan Miller on Organ Donation and How Students Can 'Be the Spark'

Written by Susan Miller as told to Zoe Engels, Contributing Writer and Editor

Meet SODA National Board Member, Susan Miller! She is an organ donation advocate, author, certified grief educator, and keynote speaker on grief, resilience, and post-traumatic growth. Susan has been on SODA National’s Board of Directors since it was created in 2014. She also volunteers with the Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin, helping develop their employee resiliency program and raising money for organ donation education and brain cancer research. Learn more about Susan, her powerful memoir, and passion for organ, eye, and tissue donation advocacy in the Q&A below!

What inspired you to get involved with SODA?

When our 14-year-old daughter Laura passed away suddenly from a previously undiagnosed, cancerous brain tumor, we were asked to donate her organs. We didn't know how to respond because we had never asked Laura about her wishes. She hadn't even been old enough to decide for herself. But, with the encouragement of our rabbi and the agreement of our daughters, we decided we wanted to do whatever we could to prevent another family from the grief we were experiencing. We hoped some good would emerge from our loss.

What does organ donation mean to you?

Organ donation means more to our family than can be put into words. More than 13 years ago, Trish O'Neill received Laura's liver and has since been able to lead a vibrant and healthy life. She has enabled Laura's legacy of kindness to extend far beyond what we ever could have hoped. When we bring up Laura's name and the organ donation story, people often say the story gives them goosebumps—for good reason! With our family decision, that we made on the worst day of our lives, we saved a life.

What do you enjoy most about being part of SODA National’s Board of Directors?

I enjoy meeting the other members of SODA National’s Board of Directors, who each have their own expertise and reasons for being part of the organ donation community. I enjoy watching as the number of SODA chapters increases across the country and am inspired by the student leaders who are working to educate their peers about the critical shortage of organs and helping to register more potential organ, eye, and tissue donors. I also appreciate the strong partnerships which SODA has forged with many OPOs. We are stronger working together toward the goal of saving more lives.

Who/what inspires you?

Living donors inspire me with their courage and generosity. They give of themselves both literally and figuratively in order to save the life of someone they know, and sometimes whom they have never met.

The recipients are grateful for receiving this second chance of life. What has surprised me is the sincere gratitude that living donors have for being able to give someone else a second chance at life. As a donor family, we feel the same way.

If you could give students any piece of advice, what would it be?

Be confident that however you are comfortable advocating for organ donation, that is the right way for you! Although you might not see the positive impact of your conversations and programs, know that you are making a positive impact. You could be the spark that encourages students to talk with their parents about their organ donation wishes and subsequently change other hearts and minds.

If you’re feeling inspired by Susan’s advice and want to explore your passion for organ, eye, and tissue donation advocacy and education with an organ donation nonprofit, sign up to host an event or start a chapter here.

Do you have a motto or personal mantra?

Life is less about what happens to you and more about how you choose to respond.

Tell us about yourself!

Three years ago I published a memoir about the grief surrounding my daughter's death, our organ donation story, and my own health challenges. Permission to Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth details my story of loss and resilience and suggests healthy ways for people to grieve and practical strategies for supporting others that we care about. My goal is to decrease the awkwardness surrounding death and give hope that in the aftermath of tragedy and trauma, we all have the capacity to grow and gain wisdom.

When you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your free time?

I enjoy reading historical fiction, traveling to see friends and family, hiking, and learning to play pickleball.

Fun fact: Susan received her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Michigan and her MBA from Loyola University in Chicago.

When you were a kid, what was your dream job?

I wanted to write a book and help people. I never could have imagined how my memoir would encompass both wishes.

What are you currently reading?

I recently finished reading Glennon Doyle's Untamed, an insightful book about being fearless in how we live our lives. I also enjoyed Think Again by Adam Grant and When Death Becomes Life by Joshua D. Mezrich.

Finally, do you have a fun fact about yourself that you’d like to share?

I love learning languages and am currently learning to speak Hebrew.

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