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June 29, 2021

Nurse among first to start transplant unit 40 years ago

Nurse among first to start transplant unit 40 years ago

When IU Health started its transplant program 40 years ago, a group of nurses were trained in the specialty area. Kelly Miller was one of those nurses.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

She likes to say she had a leg up when it came to learning about medical supplies. As a college student one of Kelly Miller’s first jobs was at a medical products store. Compression stockings and ostomy bags were part of the inventory along with a number of other medical necessities.

It was a job that matched her interest in the medical field. That interest started when she was 13. She became ill with what was diagnosed as ulcerative colitis and ended up a patient at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.

“I was in and out of the hospital for nine months and as I watched the nurses – everything they did - I was so inspired,” said Miller. In high school she took a health class and was mesmerized by the human body. She also became a candy striper and earned an award for the most volunteer hours.

After high school Miller enrolled at Indiana State University where she earned her nursing degree. She graduated on May 9, 1981 and started her career at IU Health two days later.

“One of my classmates told me they were hiring at University Hospital. I had an interview and was hired on the spot,” said Miller. She started working with patients in dialysis and rheumatology.

“They were building a transplant unit and asked if anyone wanted to go. I was just out of school and didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I jumped at the chance,” said Miller. Special training followed including a visit to the Transplant Center at St. Louis University, and classes in immunology.

When the IU Health transplant unit opened in November 1981 Miller worked with some leading doctors in the field. Those included Dr. Ronald Filo who served as chief of organ transplantation from 1974 to 2003; Dr. Stephen Leapman, who served as transplant surgeon from 1977 to 2001, director of the transplant immunology laboratory from 1985 to 2001, and associate director of organ transplantation from 2001 to 2009, and Dr. Mark Pescovitz, transplant surgeon from 1988 to 2010, surgical director of pancreas transplantation from 1998 to 2003, chief of transplant surgery from 2003 to 2004, and director of the transplant immunology laboratory from 2003 to 2010.

Nurse Marjorie Kurt was also one of Miller’s early co-workers.

“I consider Kelly the very best ‘top notch nurse.’ She is professional, considerate, thorough, and diligent in her client care,” said Kurt, who has worked with Miller since 1981. Later, when Kurt became a nursing instructor she brought her students to the IU Health transplant unit for training. “I was able to entrust Kelly with my students, knowing she would be an excellent mentor as well, utilizing the best of nursing practice. I trusted Kelly completely, knowing her high level of commitment to her work. She often worked hours after her shift, completing her work to a thorough level of commitment, characteristic of her work,” said Kurt.

Over the years Miller has seen many former co-workers move to different hospitals and transplant programs.

“They are excellent at what they do and their work has taken them throughout the country,” said Miller. “I remember when our doctors rounded twice a day and they made popcorn to take to the patients. I really saw a tender side to them.”

She recalls one patient who had leukemia and when her husband began crying she saw the doctors gather around and put their arms around him to comfort him. In the early years, IU Health University Hospital patients were seen for heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver transplantation. Since then, heart and lung transplantation moved to IU Health Methodist Hospital.

“One of the biggest changes over the years is the technology. We’ve moved from paper charting to computerized charting,” said Miller. Nurses have also moved from a time when they counted drops on the IV pumps to a time when the pumps are self-regulated. There are more safety measures in place too, such as bed alarms, said Miller.

“I think transplant is the best unit in the hospital. We float and the patients come back so you see some of them over and over,” said Miller. “They are such an inspiration to me. I’ve had my health issues but when I see all the medication and pain they go through and still seem so hopeful, it just amazes me.”

Miller with her family

In addition to a life dedicated to transplant nursing, Miller went through four pregnancies while working on the unit. She met her husband David Miller when she was in college working at the medical product store. He worked at a neighboring medical supply company. Together they have five children ranging in age from 24 to 39 – including a set of twins. They are expecting their first grandchild later this month. Miller said spending time with her children and extended family are her hobbies.

“My advice to a new nurse would be to ‘take your time and learn everything you can about your patient,’” said Miller. “I always try to find common ground whether it’s their career, their children, or other things in life.”

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