When Dianne Miller was a kid, she had her eye on the Olympics.
“I just liked that American flag flying up behind the top of the podium,” she said. “The national anthem playing, the thrill of victory. It’s really nice to be a winner.”
Recently, Miller broke three world records in swimming, and won two gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes.
It wasn’t quite the Olympics, but for the 65-year-old Miller it might as well have been. That’s because in 2004, she couldn’t fathom ever getting back in the pool.
Miller wasn’t even sure she was going to live.
On May 8 of that year, Miller lay in a coma at a Phoenix hospital. Three weeks earlier, she was afflicted with acute liver syndrome, which led to her 45-day stay in the ICU.
“Everything died,” Miller said, “I didn’t have a living organ. I didn’t have a heart, I didn’t have lungs, I didn’t have a kidney. My skin died, the heart was just going by electrical wires and my lungs were on a respirator that goes up through your nose, then they put a ball in your mouth and duct tape it shut.
“That,” she said, “is life support.”
But then, she got a new lease on life — she got a liver transplant on May 9.
“When the doctor gave us the thumbs up,” said John Miller, her husband of 40 years, “she had been in a coma for four days.”
Her donor was Heather Travers, 24, a Californian who died in a head-on car crash. Her mother donated Travers’ organs, which saved the lives of seven people, including Miller.
Now, Miller swims in her honor.
She does it every two years at the World Transplant Games, which were held in Durban, South Africa, from July 29 to Aug. 3; and every other year in the Transplant Games of America, which were in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2012 and will be in Houston next year.
Miller heard about the Games when she was in the ICU. A friend told her about them, and how the American games were in Minnesota that year.
“I said, ‘Boy, if I live through this, I’m gonna go to these games,’ ” she said.
And, boy, did she live through it.
It took her 18 months to get back in shape after the transplant, and soon after she was “breaking records in Louisville” at the American games.
“It was pretty amazing,” she admits. “I mean, I never thought I’d be able to swim, or walk, or turn the TV back on. I didn’t know how to do any of those things. I had to learn everything all over again, it took a good year to get back to knowing my friends, and who I was.”
Now, she can be found anchoring a medley relay team with 27-, 36- and 52-year-olds, competing against teams with swimmers as young as 13.
“She holds her own,” said John Miller.
Right now, Miller is living her dream. She feels like an Olympian.
Dianne Miller is a winner.
But, really, she doesn’t care about the medals, or the world records.
“I’d give all my medals away,” Miller said. “Winning is about spreading the word. I wouldn’t be talking to you unless I got the gift of life. That day the girl passed away, they were going to pull all the plugs. That was it. Término. Final. It’s a miracle.”
“I really am living the dream,” she added, “But, I just want to give all that I can give.”