Major Miller, 40, has always worked hard and played hard.
At the young age of 4, Miller discovered a passion for playing ice hockey. He eventually played in Grand Rapids for the Whalers, who would later be named the Griffins after the minor league AHL team. His final year skating for them, they won the Midget A State Championship.
“The banner is still up at Patterson Arena,” he proudly notes.
In his youth, he enjoyed travel to far-flung spots like Austria, Belize, China, Germany, Hawaii and Tobago.
“Activity has always been part of my life,” Miller said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, however, it quickly halted activities for Miller and millions of others.
This wasn’t the only reason the Grand Haven, Michigan, resident slowed down.
Several years earlier, when his past lifestyle caught up to him, his existing battle with cardiomyopathy reached a critical point.
“I had a long history of alcohol and drug abuse,” Miller said. “Despite the athletics, I pushed my heart a bit too hard.
“It got to where it was hard to breathe, when my heart and my lungs became swollen. I needed help right away.”
Miller’s cardiac treatment first began in October 2015, when he went to an Ohio hospital to be outfitted with a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.
Doctors also placed him on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
Marzia Leacche, MD, now a cardiothoracic surgeon at Spectrum Health, performed the procedure on Miller in 2015.
Miller went back to Ohio for his initial follow-up appointment, driving six hours each way. “I did it once, and knew something had to shift.”
He considered Spectrum Health cardiologist Sangjin Lee, MD, who’d previously worked at that Ohio hospital, his “ace in the hole.” Soon, he handed his care over to the team at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, close to home.
He faced a daunting journey to better health.
“Initially, he was not a surgical candidate for a transplant,” Dr. Leacche said.
Living with the help of the LVAD, Miller waited until the time came that he’d become a candidate for a heart transplant and, ultimately, get on the list. He learned to take it all in stride.
“If you’re a control freak, having any kind of medical issue is not for you,” he said.
Miller still worked hard, throughout his LVAD experience and his heart transplant wait, at times from a hospital bed.
More than five years passed.
In February 2021, when his LVAD alarm began incessantly beeping, Miller headed to the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
Doctors found a clot. He had already suffered two strokes. His situation grew dire.
Within three days, doctors matched Miller to a heart.
Dr. Leacche performed the transplant on Feb. 19.
“It went very well,” she said. “He did extremely well.”
Miller recovered swiftly, returning home March 4.
Months later, he’s a new person. He’s as active as ever.
He’s working hard to build the business he started in 2019, Modular Lamination & Metalwork. His protective bichon-Yorkie, Bane, accompanies him to work each day.
He relishes helping customers, problem-solving and figuring out how to make things happen.
New life is also on the way. He and his wife, Anna, are expecting a baby boy in August.
“I’m thankful to God and for the nurses and team that allowed me to progress every day,” he said.
In his recovery, he learned to measure success in the smallest of increments—a chest tube removal, a wound healed.
He has adjusted to life without the LVAD.
“Sometimes I still think it’s there,” Miller said. “I look out for door handles, stand up carefully, constantly protecting the phantom bag.
“Running without baggage is nice. I can sleep on my stomach. I can go to John Ball Zoo without goats trying to chew through my wires.”
He’s quick to recognize how he has changed physically. He now must warm up properly before exerting himself, as his heart needs time to “get up and go.”
“It’s a strong heart,” Miller said. “I notice that it pumps hard.”
He has also learned that recovery is a team effort.
“A doctor pointed out I am a part of my treatment and recovery,” Miller said. “It’s not them telling me what to do. It’s a cooperative effort.”
With the cardiac team’s approval, he continues steering his own physical therapy.
“I kind of proved that at the hospital and pushed myself,” Miller said. “I know my body better than anyone else. If I’m going too hard, I’ll stop.”
He works out often and lifts weights daily. He’s running and skating again.
He’s gaining strength and speed.
And, once his LVAD powerline hole heals, he’ll be back in the lake, swimming.
“I’m stronger than before, mentally and spiritually,” he said. “Physically, I’m getting back.”
Miller has found ample support in his care team at Spectrum Health.
Nurse practitioner Jacquie Oliai met him when he first came to Spectrum Health as a patient.
“He was always independent and engaged in his care,” Oliai said. “He went through many obstacles to get where he is today. He is caring for his new gift very well and has the chance to see his first child be born soon.
“He has always been so kind and appreciative to all who he interacted with. I feel lucky to be part of his care and part of his life.”
Miller’s do-it-all attitude also impressed post-heart transplant coordinator Megan Stickroe.
“Many people do not realize how overwhelming or difficult it can be to learn a new normal,” Stickroe said. “The first few months are intense. He and Anna are successfully adjusting to his new life while preparing for another new life. He inspires and motivates me.”
Dr. Lee guided much of Miller’s care and watched his health come full circle—from extremely sick, to transplant, to a high-quality life.
“These people place their lives in our hands,” Dr. Lee said. “It’s not easy for someone so young to have end-stage heart failure. Every time I see him in the office it reminds me of how far he’s come.”
Miller is an inspiration, Dr. Lee said.
“Major reminds us of the joy of caring for patients and restoring their quality of life,” he said. “It’s really something. It’s humbling to see him doing so well.”
Miller isn’t looking back.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I won’t. Every decision I made has made me who I am. I’ll encourage my son to not get into alcohol and drugs. There are better things to do, better ways to spend your money, better ways to treat your body. Better ways to experience life.”
Miller remains deeply grateful for the care he has received—and he expressed it in a letter to his team.
Dr. Lee remembers the letter, particularly this passage: “You have made certain calls and decisions that have led me to here and now: the end game—transplant—new life.
“You have won. I have most definitely won.”