Forty Years of Love: Leaving a Legacy

 

 

                     Mike and Linda Miller were married to each other for forty years. They were just 15 and 16 when they met in high school and started dating. Linda describes him as a very fun, loving, patriotic, religious, family oriented person. Some of Linda’s fondest memories are of Mike making her laugh so hard at bedtime that she was scared they’d wake up the children. After high school, Mike went to Vietnam and Linda went to nursing school. They stayed in touch the whole time and when he returned from the war, he went into the clothing industry just like his father and brothers. Once they had their own children, Mike became a consummate father and husband. He coached his sons’ little league team and even when the family was low on money, Mike would bring home small trinkets or a bouquet of flowers for Linda. Linda says that “we did not have much money, but we had a whole lot of love.” Mike and Linda watched their granddaughter when she was a toddler and Mike was always willing to get up early and tend to her, just to let Linda get a little more sleep. Linda would often find the two of them dancing to morning cartoons when she woke up.

                     Their long journey with cancer started in 2006 when Mike was first diagnosed with the unimaginable - skin cancer, then prostate cancer in 2007, and a precancerous colon tumor in 2008. He had skin cancer removed from his shoulder, chest, and back area. He then had prostate seeding, which resulted in his PSA level going down. This was a good indication and they remained very optimistic, despite the fact that he had an especially hard time during the colon surgery because the staples caused an immune reaction, leading to the opening of the incision. It also resulted in an infection that he was trying to overcome before attending his daughter’s wedding in October 2008, and his son’s wedding in November at Disney World. He was still quite weak in October, but was doing much better for his son’s wedding in November. That year, the Millers celebrated their children’s weddings and thought the worst was behind them. They’d been tested through three cancers and multiple operations already. Neither could even conceive of the idea that something worse was coming.

                     In the summer of 2010, Mike started acting strange. He had a hard time finding the right words for what he was trying to say. At first, Linda and Mike didn’t think much of it. They chalked it up to aging and Mike even cracked jokes about his forgetfulness, saying that he had “Oldtimer’s” instead of Alzheimer’s. Mike finally changed his tune when he came home one day and said to Linda “I think you’re right, there is something wrong with me.” He was obviously very upset and when Linda asked him what was wrong, Mike replied “I can’t remember my grandchildren’s names.” They decided to talk about this with his doctor at his next appointment on July 28th. Mike’s doctor immediately knew something was wrong and was upset that nothing had been done sooner. Mike was moved to a local hospital in downtown Baltimore and was given a battery of tests including an MRI. By the 4th of August, they had the results of the MRI and they were told for the first time that Mike had a Grade IV Glioma. Linda has a nursing background and realized that out of all brain tumors one could have, that one was the worst. As if that was not enough of a challenge, the hospital did not want to offer him surgery because his prospects of doing well were too slim. Linda sometimes felt like the hospital just wanted to send him home. The Miller family had been through so much with his previous cancers, but they had never been told that the odds were against him. Linda refused to simply accept that prediction and instead began to look for other option. With the support of family and friends, they started to search for any options open to them.

                     She not only had to find a surgeon who would be willing to operate, but also needed to garner financial support because despite being a war veteran, the government refused to pay for a surgery. They did, however, start chemotherapy. Around the 20th of August, they got in touch with Dr. Quinones for the first time through an acquaintance of Mike’s brother. Following that, a friend of Mike with some good connections was able to find financial support for the surgery. The money coming through was a godsend, because the tumor wasn’t waiting. On the MRI of early August, the tumor was around 2 cm in size. By the time Dr. Q finally operated on Mike in early September, he was bearing a 9 cm mass that was pushing his brain completely to one side. Prior to removing the tumor, Dr. Q had to relieve some CSF pressure that had built up because of brain swelling. If Dr. Q had not operated on Mike when he did, it’s very unlikely that Mike would have made it through the month of September. While Dr. Q could not provide a cure, he was able to give them time; and time is what the Miller family needed. Mike was present for all of their children’s birthdays as well as the winter holidays in 2010, and he was able to spend time with ten of his twelve grandchildren.

                     Mike’s daughter Jennifer tells me that she had always seen her father as a very strong and healthy man. However, the change was very apparent with the brain tumor. He became very frustrated that he could not communicate with others. Mike didn’t want people to help him finish his sentences and often would lose patience and give up. Witnessing her father as vulnerable as he was when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor was very difficult for her. When I asked what the scariest part of it all was she replied with a voice full of emotion, “it was the knowledge that there was not much time left.”

                     On his 62nd birthday in January of 2011, Mike was on the couch with one of his sons, who was trying to chat with him. His son quickly noticed that Mike was not himself. He was not paying attention and all of a sudden had to grab on to a chair. That was Mike’s first seizure. They had to call 911 and Mike was transported to the local hospital in Bel Air, MD. Linda insisted that they transfer Mike to Hopkins and that Dr. Quinones see him personally. She didn’t know exactly what the seizure meant for Mike’s recovery, but Linda says that “if there were no options left, I want Dr. Q to tell me that.” After another MRI, Dr. Q confirmed the family’s worst fear. The tumor was growing back. Dr. Q offered them the choice between going back to the OR and trying to remove another portion of the tumor or not proceed any further. When asked what he would do if it was him, Dr. Q told them that “if Mike was my father, I would want to give him another chance.”

                     It was a very difficult decision to make, and they were pressed for time. Despite Mike’s difficulty communicating, he decided with Linda to go through surgery again. The family trusted Dr. Quinones and from the very first moment they talked, they felt the confidence in him. They felt he treated Mike like a person and not a number or just another surgery. Dr. Q almost became part of the family. Everybody felt that way, including Mike. “That is how Dr Q makes you feel; it means an awful lot.” The surgery was successful, but the recovery was difficult. He stayed in rehab for a while, but Linda could tell that he wasn’t getting any better. One day she asked him if he just wanted to go back home and Mike nodded “yes.” They went home the next day, and four days later, Mike passed away. Linda recalls that for some mysterious reason, everyone started showing up at their house the evening he passed. Only one son was not able to make it during that time because his wife had just been in labor. Two days before passing away, Mike got to see a picture of his eleventh grandchild. On the phone, Linda was very emotional when describing her last moments with her lifetime love. Right before passing away, she was at the head of his bed providing him with some pain medication, when Mike started looking around but could not find her, she stepped down to get in his field of vision and Mike gave her a last hug.

                     One can hardly imagine the hole that was left in Linda’s life. Mike had been with her for three quarters of her life and now he is gone. Despite her loss, she and the rest of her family are very grateful to Dr. Q for giving them more time. In June 2012, the Miller family will be hosting a fundraising event in memory of Mike and for brain cancer research in Dr Quinones’ laboratory. Linda knows firsthand how important brain cancer research and eventually finding a cure for brain tumors is, and she is positive that helping to find a cure is the sort of legacy Mike wanted to leave behind.

Written by: Lyonell Kone                    Edited by: Caitlin Rogers

Mike Miller Fundraising Event