William Miller '06 - Nursing

Two Planes

On the morning of September 11, 2001, two American Airlines passenger jets took off down the tarmac at Boston's Logan International Airport and ascended into the clear blue sky above. The planes, bound for sunny California, disappeared behind the clouds sometime between 7:50 and 8:00 am.

On the first plane sat William Miller '06, a twenty-something who had grown tired of his corporate job and bought a ticket to the west coast in hopes of landing a new career - one he hoped would bring new meaning to his life. On the second plane sat five al-Qaeda terrorists, who would ultimately hijack the jetliner and steer it into North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

"I chose the flight with the layover because I am afraid of flying. I easily could have ended up on the other plane out that morning," said Miller, who nearly purchased a ticket on American flight #11 out of Boston.

Miller says that September 11, 2001 was truly the first day of the rest of his life.

The moment he stepped off the jet way at Philadelphia's International Airport, he learned the fate of the Boeing 767 that departed from Boston just minutes after his own. As he watched the horrific events unfold on a blurry television monitor in the busy terminal, he came to the sobering realization that his life was spared that day.

Rather than continue his search for a job that would bring happiness to his own life, Miller set out in search of a career that would bring happiness to the lives of others. In some way or another, he was determined to pay his good turn forward.

"9/11 was a catalyst for me. I immediately wanted to go to New York City and do something, but I did not know a trade or skill that would have allowed me to help those most in need," said Miller.

After a few years of self-exploration on the west coast, Miller bought a return ticket to Boston and enrolled in the Nursing Program at Curry College. While at first he was hesitant about pursuing a job as a male nurse in a female dominated field, he quickly recognized that the unique program would allow him to gain the hands-on skills he would need to finally give back.

"My Mom used to tell me that I would make a great nurse, and I would laugh ather. It didn't take long for me to realize that she was right," said Miller.

Miller worked through the comprehensive eighteen month program at Curry, studied hard for the mandatory standardized test and excelled at hands-on training in the lab. While he says it took time to re-acclimate himself to the classroom setting after tackling the corporate world, he quickly found that the clinical component of the program helped to put the lessons he was learning in the classroom into perspective.

"I got to see the theory I learned in the classroom put into action during my clinical rotation," said Miller, who quickly became comfortable caring for patients and assisting medical professionals in his nursing assistant role in the Neurology Intensive Care Unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Upon completing his education in 2006, Miller was offered a full time job at the hospital.

"All of a sudden, nobody is watching over you. You are doing it, and there are real people and you have the power to really make or break their day, or their life," said Miller, recalling the thoughts that flew through his mind during his first rotation as a Registered Nurse.

Two Countries

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to its brittle core. In an instant, the impoverished people of Haiti became the unsuspecting victims of a catastrophic natural disaster. When news of the devastation spread, the United States scrambled to assemble teams of highly qualified health care professionals, and rapidly relocated hundreds of triage teams to devastated communities in and around Port-au-Prince.

Miller, desperate to join the ranks of doctors, nurses and health care aids who were flying straight to the epicenter of destruction, did everything in his power to join a medical response team immediately following the quake. The dire situation unfolding in Haiti prompted him to remember the promise he quietly made on the morning of September 11, 2001: pay it forward.

"When Haiti happened, I made a full court press to get there. Unfortunately, my skill set was not what they needed in that instant," said Miller. "They were looking for professionals with surgical skills. They were cutting off limbs left and right to save lives."

While networking his way to Haiti, Miller connected with a number of national and international health care organizations. In a matter of months, he received a phone call from a group called Pisco Sin Fronteras, an emerging non-profit working to revive the devastated area of Pisco, Peru. They asked for him to respond to a call for help from volunteers working to rebuild the former fishing town, which was quietly leveled by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in 2007.

Miller soon learned that volunteers in Pisco were falling ill as they worked to repair the crumbling city, due to unsanitary conditions and a great lack of resources. He was asked to spend two months teaching displaced volunteers and locals alike about practical methods of sanitation and daily health care. Without hesitating, he packed a duffle bag and hopped a plane to Peru.

"Volunteers were getting sick because they were neglecting to wash their hands or properly prepare food as they worked to rebuild. I helped them to see that it can be easy to stay healthy," said Miller, who only had two days to prepare for the expedition.

Upon arriving in Peru, Miller was shocked to learn that volunteers took over the rebuilding effort in Pisco after the Peruvian government abandoned the distressed area just one year after the quake.

"To make a difference in these places, you need to be sustainable," said Miller, who could not believe that many organizations only provided aid during the recovery phase of the effort.

Though he was not considered an international health expert by U.S. standards, Miller quickly recognized that the skills he learned in the lab at Curry and on the surgical floor at Brigham and Women's would help him to make a huge impact in a developing country. Working out of a dust ridden, makeshift compound near the epicenter of the destruction, Miller started to pay it forward.

"I couldn't do everything, but I did the best that I could with what I knew because even that was better than doing nothing," said Miller.

Miller pulled insects from infected wounds, administered first aid and learned to correctly identify symptoms of malaria and typhoid fever. He taught volunteers the basics of triage and helped them to use the tools they could afford to maintain a healthy standard of living, despite poor conditions. In one instance, he saved the life of a fellow volunteer by instructing her to take medication after a stray dog sunk his teeth into her arm.

"I had to make decisions, even if I was not sure about the outcome. I could not have done many of the things I did there in America because of laws and licenses, but in that situation I had to do the best I could to help the people. No one else was going to do it," said Miller.

Though his stay in Peru lasted just two short months, the lessons Miller taught the volunteers of Pisco will help them to stay healthy as they work to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

In December of 2010, one year after his departure from Peru, Miller received an email from a representative of Project Hope, a group working to deliver essential medical care and supplies to distressed communities around the world. The email was calling for Miller to help in Haiti.

Miller learned that bacteria had slowly seeped into Haiti's food and water supplies and was causing hundreds of thousands of locals to fall ill with symptoms of dehydration and fever. While first responders were still present in the country following the quake, the amount of people affected by the dangerous cholera outbreak far outnumbered the help. Once again, there was an urgent need for American nurses to travel to Haiti.

"I really wanted to get to Haiti, and that was my opportunity to finally help," said Miller, who landed in the country two nights later.

When Miller arrived at his nursing post in central Haiti's Hospital Albert Schweitzer, the scene was far worse than he expected. Beds were pushed into tight rows against every wall: not one was empty. Locals arrived at the facility on broken doors, carried by family members who could no longer ease their pain. Haitian nurses struggled to get the cholera under control, as patients' IV bags ran dry.

"My first eight-hour shift was eye-opening. The Haitian nurses were not skilled to handle the situation and did not understand the urgency of hydrating the sick people," said Miller, who was often forced to push IV fluids using gravity: a trick he learned in the lab at Curry College.

Miller collaborated with three Polish doctors, two American nurses, and a Swiss anesthesiologist during tedious eight-hour shifts, day after day for several weeks. Four Haitian nurses supported the team by communicating with patients in their native language of Créole. Though Miller could not understand what the patients were saying, he said he could tell when they were feeling better.

"The people were so resilient. Only an hour or two after receiving fluid, you would see them come to life," said Miller, who added that many patients were also fighting symptoms consistent with malaria, typhoid and even HIV.

While the cause of the cholera outbreak is still unknown, Miller said theorists suggest that the strain always existed in Haiti but remained dormant until the earthquake violently rattled the infrastructure. Others have suggested that a Nepalese aid group with good intentions brought the bacteria with them when they arrived to help recovery efforts. Despite the cause, Miller says he was happy to help find a solution.

"The number of patients in the hospital was cut in half bythe time I left Haiti, simply because we knew how to help. I think volunteering is inherently selfish. Not many people are able to affect another's life in the way that I was able to, and that is a big deal," said Miller.

One Life

These days, Miller is working at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) as a transitional care provider. While he will never forget the significant impact he made in the distressed countries of Peru and Haiti, he says that he is now enjoying the opportunity to enhance his skills and make a difference on American soil.

"If another event happens in the world, and I have the flexibility to help, I will do my best to get there. To be able to save even one life is great," said Miller.

On September 11, 2001 Miller realized that life is truly a gift, and brought new meaning to his own by giving of himself to those in need. While he will never know why a simple twist of fate led him to a life of service, he will never stop paying it forward.

"Everyday, I try to make a difference," said Miller. "My feet are pretty well grounded at this point."


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