Bob Asmussen | Liver transplant has Illini football staffer on the mend

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The health equation for Ben Miller is simple:

The wonders of modern medicine + faith and determination + a supportive family and employer = the road to recovery.

Two years after a "scary" colon cancer diagnosis, the University of Illinois football staffer is on the mend following a Jan. 27 liver transplant.

He shared his experiences with me last week from his room at the Mid-America Transplant Family House in St. Louis, which provides low-cost lodging ($15 per night) for patients and their loved ones.

"It is amazing," Miller told me.

Now, he is back at his Champaign home for good, returning Friday.

Miller's story brings tears to your eyes and a lump in your throat.

He had been reluctant to talk about his illness. But this is a chance to advocate for the importance of organ donations, which aren't keeping up with the wait lists.

Miller wants to help people. Always has. Miller signed up to be an organ donor the first time he got his driver's license back in the day.

"Why wouldn't I do that for somebody else?" he said.

His surgery was performed at Barnes-Jewish Hospital by Dr. Jason Wellen.

"I had never met him," Miller said. "He was awesome. Kind of like a young coach. 'You're healthy. We're going to get this thing out, we're going to get you a new one, and you're going to be in and out of here.' He was confident, which is good."

Miller, 44, is part of a clinical trial that is using technology called normothermic machine perfusion (NMP), which tests liver function.

"That is what Mr. Miller signed up for," said Dr. Will Chapman, the chief surgeon on the pilot program and one of those who performed the procedure at Barnes.

The use of a liver transplant to treat the kind of cancer Miller has is a newer idea.

"It's not been done enough to be accepted as the standard method to treat metastatic colon cancer," Chapman said. "We think it's very promising."

Miller's problem was the remaining cancer in the liver, which was deemed inoperable.

"Our goal here is cure," Chapman said. "Get the tumor out and hope there is no evidence of recurrence."

Miller's case is unique, which made him a good candidate for a transplant.

Chapman, a University of North Carolina alum, can't wait to see Miller return to the sidelines at Illinois.

"He should be back to his baseline very quickly," Chapman said. "We generally say all patients after a liver transplant, assuming everything is going well, in two months they are back to full speed.

"The surgery went well."

The path to a transplant started with a conversation Miller had with his oncologist, Dr. Katrina Pedersen.

"There were tumors in my liver and that was the last place they had spread to," Miller said.

The medical team working with Miller decided he had the right profile to be part of the trial, with an ultimate goal.

"It was the first time anybody had given me an option that was a possible cure," Miller said.

He had tried chemotherapy.

"It was at the point where it had become maintenance to keep it from moving anywhere else," Miller said.

He needed a Plan B, and his team came up with one.

Following an evaluation, Miller went on the transplant list in late October.

"I had my Apple Watch on during games, was hoping the call didn't come during a game but was ready," Miller said.

Before he got his new liver, there were two false starts. An appropriate term for a longtime football coach.

Miller was summoned to Barnes in December and again in early January with the intent to have the transplant. He was prepped for surgery. Twice. But both livers were determined to not be viable. So, he waited.

How did that go?

"The unknown is scary," Miller said. "You can do as much research as you want on the internet, but I don't know if anything can prepare you for it."

He has a family to consider. Wife Meghan, daughters Quinn and Keeley and son Lochlan have been Miller's rock and motivation to do whatever he can to get better.

"They're old enough (15, 14 and 12) to know what's going on and have their own emotions and their own teenage feelings," Miller said. "That was probably the hardest part was my wife and I had to say goodbye to our kids and we didn't know long we'd be gone."

Ben and Meghan have raised them well.

"Our kids are amazing," Miller said.

And Meghan?

"She's been everything," Miller said. "From emotional support to physical support to all the things she's done for me after surgery.

"She's a coach's wife too. She's dealt with some ups and downs. There's no doubt that helps. A positive spirit goes a long, long way."

Family and friends have helped. Meghan's mom stayed with the kids while her daughter and Ben were away.

Slowly but surely

Miller's voice is clear and strong. Doesn't sound like someone who just had an organ transplant.

For frame of reference, the liver in an adult is about the size of a football and weighs 3 pounds.

It was not his first major surgery. Miller had his colon removed after his initial cancer diagnosis.

"That was a tough recovery, but that was nothing like this," Miller said. "I was prepared for a hard recovery. The first week was really hard and it's gotten better the last two weeks."

He is up and around, out walking. But his energy level is lower. After 30 minutes on a walk, he needs to rest.

"At that point, it's really trying not to overdo it," he said.

Miller was in the intensive-care unit for only a day. He was released from the hospital after four days. Then two miles to the Mid-America facility.

Miller is taking "a lot of pills" to fight off rejection. Thirty to 40 a day.

"It's never been a problem," he said. "That will go down. At the three-month point, you drop off on some to the point where you are taking 10 to 12 a day."

He gets blood tests done weekly in Champaign.

Meghan returned to work as a teacher on Monday. Another reason for the family to celebrate.

Miller is looking forward to driving again.

"I'm feeling good," he said.

Another side

For Miller to receive a new liver, it meant somebody passed away.

Miller will reach out to the donor's family.

"That's something I definitely plan on doing," he said. "That will be another emotional roller coaster. I can't imagine for that other family what they went through."

Family conversations are so important for organ donations, Chapman said.

"What happens almost always when someone is a potential organ donor, it is in the setting of a tragedy for the family and they are understandably very stressed," Chapman said. "If this subject has never come up, it's really tough for families to make a decision about donation.

"Telling the family is even more assurance that this is what they want to see happen."

Chapman and the Barnes team perform about 150 liver transplants per year.

"We still have patients we can't help because of organ shortage," Chapman said. "We're doing everything we can to increase that option."

Part of the team

Officially, Miller is listed as the analyst to Illinois head coach Bret Bielema.

He is thankful for the kind and generous treatment from Bielema, athletic director Josh Whitman and the UI.

"The university has taken care of me, and Coach Bielema has been amazing," Miller said. "He knew things about cancer that I didn't know."

Bielema had been with coaches in the past who tried to work through an illness.

"He said 'You need to sit back. You need to take care of this,'" Miller said "That wisdom from him has helped me keep an even keel, better than I would have. I would have kept going hard."

During the 2023 season, Miller did background work for Bielema. He met with him on game plans and in-game decisions. Stuff like that. He was in the Smith Center office every day, going home each night for dinner.

He prioritized sleep, exercise and a healthy diet.

"That I had never done during a football season," Miller said. "The only reason I was able to do that was because Bret gave me the freedom to do it."

During games, Miller was on the sidelines.

He will be around in the spring. Miller hopes to be more involved day to day in the fall.

Becoming a full-time assistant coach is the goal, "assuming health-wise everything comes back to normal," Miller said. "The promise of organ donation is: 'Hey, you're going to go back to a normal life.'"

Miller's profession has been an asset in dealing with his illness.

"You're competitive and go into it like 'This is a challenge,'" he said.

Chapman agrees Miller's background as an athlete and coach helps him.

"Absolutely, yes," Chapman said. "Patients who are in robust physical condition get through this process better more favorably. That was definitely the case for him. His great physical condition gives him more reserve to get through a big operation."

Chapman and the transplant team encourage patients to stay physically active while waiting for their surgeries. Miller followed the request.

Illness also adds perspective for Miller. Yes, he wants to win every game. But life is what matters most.

It was lesson Miller learned earlier, thanks to Meghan.

"When my kids were small, I would come after a loss and it was just devastating," Miller said. "My wife would say 'The kids don't care that you lost. They just want to spend time with their dad.'"

'Something is wrong'

In the fall of 2021 — Miller's first season as an Illinois assistant — he had persistent stomach issues. He had joined Bielema's initial Illinois staff as tight ends coach/special teams coordinator.

"I thought it was just stress," he said. "It was a tough year. It was my first year in the Big Ten. It was all these things."

The season ended, and he got worse during Christmas break.

"My wife said: 'You are going to the doctor. Something is wrong with you.'"

She was right.

On Feb. 1, 2022, Miller had a colonoscopy. A tumor was found in his lower colon that was keeping his intestines from working properly.

His colon was removed that month at the Cleveland Clinic, a renowned medical center.

"I've been fighting it ever since," Miller said.

His surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic?

Dr. Bradley Champagne.

He connected Miller with Pedersen, who is 2 1/2 hours from Champaign at Barnes.

When he was first diagnosed with cancer, Miller went through very predictable emotions.

"There is initially that 'Why me?'" Miller said.

That didn't last long. He started to learn about the disease.

"Colon cancer among young people is going up," Miller said. "I tried to take some ownership in why this happened to me, my eating habits, my lifestyle habits. Being a football coach is not the healthiest lifestyle, stress and eating. You're on the road a lot. I was never very good about my diet. You learn about al the foods that cause colon cancer. That was my diet."

Not anymore. He has four reasons at home to take care of himself. And a team and coaching staff in his corner.

"Obviously," he said, "health first."