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Heavyweight fighter donates half his liver to save uncle’s life

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February 14, 2011

As he waited in a hotel room, the pre-surgery tests behind him and the nine-hour operation ahead of him, Shannon Miller recognized the ache of anxiety and pang of impatience.

It felt like the day before Fight Night, and even after 18 years and 25 professional bouts, that day always brought the same restlessness and eagerness to hurry up and ring the darn bell already.

This was no boxing match, of course, but the metaphor was too obvious for a former heavyweight to ignore — a 36-year-old married father undergoing surgery to remove half his liver, which then would be donated to a cancer-stricken uncle, is still a fight.

The surgery was scheduled for 9 Wednesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, Miller thought about the things he did to pass time the day before his bouts: Eat a good breakfast, walk around a mall, nap, eat again, rinse and repeat until bed time.

He never dwelled on the risks he took stepping into the ring, just as he wouldn’t obsess over the fact that about 1 in 200 liver donors die in surgery.

Before boxing matches, Miller thought about winning.

Before surgery, he thought about saving Uncle Raymond.

“Sometimes you’re given a chance to do something that validates your life, makes it for a reason,” Miller said. “I don’t know of a better thing than to help someone else live.”

No one asked Miller to donate his liver, just as no one could talk him out of it.

That was the thing that surprised Miller about the whole process, how many times doctors reminded him that he could change his mind at any time.

He didn’t — never even considered it — and Raymond was eternally grateful, even if Miller begged not to be thanked.

They’d always enjoyed a close relationship, Miller and his uncle, in part because of their mutual love of hunting and fishing — and boxing.

Raymond, 62, is the brother of Shannon’s father, Bob, a longtime fixture in the local boxing scene. Before Mike Tyson became a household name, Bob helped promote his cards. His other son, Shawn, also fights professionally.

Shannon lives in Troy, but his uncle Raymond, who is married with two children, lives further north, in Keeseville. Raymond worked as a union mason, a blue-collar lifestyle that included grueling labor during the week and weekends at the saloon with the boys.

Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with hepatitis, and doctors warned him liver cancer probably would follow. Raymond quit drinking, but too late to save his liver. About six months ago, he went on the transplant waiting list.

Bob and his siblings couldn’t be considered for donation, because they’re too old.

Raymond’s children weren’t a match.

Shannon Miller was.

To confirm a liver donor match, doctors take blood tests, perform biopsies and use a CAT scan to create a three-dimensional reconstruction of the donor’s liver and the ensuing surgery.

The surgery is long and tedious. Doctors remove the sick patients’ liver and replace it with as much as 60 percent of the donor’s. The donor’s most significant risk is bleeding, because the liver is rife with blood vessels.

Miller’s wife, Heather, who works in the medical field as an assistant to an orthopedic surgeon, knew a lot about the operation and its risks, which only made her more nervous.

Having known Miller for 16 years, she also knew this — he wasn’t backing out. Despite her anxiety, she supported his decision, just as she supported his boxing career.

When she and Miller first began dating, Heather enjoyed watching him fight. Dating a boxer was fun, but being married to one was different. The stakes were even higher when the couple had their two children, Devan, now 10, and Olivia, now 6.

By the end of Miller’s career, during which he compiled a 16-5 record with 9 KOs, Heather preferred to watch her husband’s fights from the back of the auditorium, far from the splatters of sweat and blood that accompanied every hook and jab.

She, too, recognized the nervousness she felt the day before surgery.

It felt like the day before a fight.

The surgery at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., lasted longer than expected. Because of Miller’s size and muscle mass, doctors needed more time than anticipated to remove his liver. Miller spent more than nine hours in surgery. Because of the delay, doctors waited until Thursday to implant the new liver in Raymond.

Raymond, whose recovery is expected to take longer, still was on a ventilator Friday. Doctors are pleased with how he came out of the surgery.

Miller was sore and exhausted. He needed a nap after brushing his teeth and getting dressed.

Doctors had cautioned Miller about the recovery. He’d be hospitalized a week. He probably wouldn’t be able to run or work out for a few months. His liver would regenerate within about 12 weeks, but that process would sap his energy.

But Miller wasn’t just thinking about running and working out.

He was thinking about fighting.

One year from now, he wants to step into the boxing ring one last time. He wants to donate his payout to a fund for living organ donors, to ease their financial burdens.

There are sacrifices beyond the physical, Miller has learned. He had to take leave from his job as a public safety officer at RPI. For a few months, his brother will handle running the gym they own together. Plus, there are hotel bills from all his trips to Massachusetts for tests. He estimates the total cost at around $5,000.

“I want to make sure money isn’t a disincentive to be an organ donor,” Miller said.

When Miller’s family saw him Thursday morning, he still was groggy. He started to wake up as his wife and father came into the room.
He caught his father’s eye, and did what he usually did the day after a fight — he started thinking about his next one.

“Are we going for a run tomorrow, dad?”

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