On a late September day in 2015, Melanie Lilliston and Becky Williams fulfilled a lifelong dream: they became parents to a beautiful baby girl named Miller “Millie” Williams Lilliston.
“From the start, Millie was a happy and easy baby who was bright eyed and curious. She kind of had an old soul,” remembers Melanie.
Millie was charismatic and always made a notable first impression. Even those who hadn’t met her were drawn to her and felt her magic through a photo or video. And in the first six months of her life, there were lots of photos and videos taken to capture her one-of-a-kind personality.
Melanie and Becky adjusted well to their new life as parents. After five months at home with Melanie, Millie began attending a daycare near their home in suburban Maryland while her parents went to work in the nation’s capital. Just as they settled into their new routine, the unthinkable happened. In April 2016, a few hours after Becky dropped Millie off at daycare, Melanie received a frightening call that Millie had “choked” at daycare. Millie had been rushed to a local hospital and was later airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Melanie and Becky arrived at the hospital and later learned the shocking news that Millie had been severely abused by her daycare provider.
“We learned Millie likely wouldn’t survive her injuries, and if she did she would never be the same,” says Melanie.
The news was unbearable, and the next 72 hours were a blur. As heart wrenching as it was, Becky stayed with Millie when she underwent brain death testing, “I tend to be an optimist, so I was looking for hope at any curve. Unfortunately, after the test it was obvious Millie was not going to get better.”
Melanie and Becky invited close friends and family to the hospital to say their goodbyes to Millie. One friend, who is a neuro physician’s assistant, encouraged them to consider donating Millie’s organs. They were open to learning more, so Melanie met with representatives from Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC), the local organ procurement organization, and that’s when she learned Millie was a good candidate for donation because miraculously her organs were still in great condition. Amid their unimaginable grief, they made the selfless decision to donate her organs.
“During my interactions with Millie‘s parents it was evident they were hoping something positive could come out of something so tragic,” says Jennifer Senter, Clinical Recovery Coordinator, WRTC. “Although they were grieving they showed strength and shared stories about their daughter and the joy she brought to them and others.”
When it was time, Melanie and Becky walked Millie from the intensive care unit to the elevator doors that led to the operating room and said one last goodbye.
“We made the decision and at that point we walk away, and then another family gets a phone call and they rush to the hospital because an opportunity that wasn’t there is there. The process starts a whole chain of events for someone else,” said Becky.
Ollie’s Story: A New Beginning
400 miles away in Charlotte, North Carolina, Evan and Alice Marleaux were waiting for a miracle. Their son Oliver, who they call “Ollie,” was only seven weeks old and fighting for his life. While Ollie was born a healthy baby, he stopped nursing at three weeks old. Evan and Alice were concerned and thought he might have a cold or virus, but once they brought him to the hospital they learned it was much more serious.
X-rays revealed that Ollie’s heart was one-and-a-half times bigger than it should be. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and immediately placed on the national transplant waiting list for a new heart. Ollie had to move into a room at Levine Children’s Hospital, so doctors and nurses could monitor him around the clock while he waited. His heart was so large it was blocking his lungs and esophagus, which made breathing and eating a challenge. Alice, who felt helpless, never thought someone she loved would need a transplant, especially not her own child.
“I realized that there was only so much I could do. I had to have a donor family say yes. It was out of my hands and I couldn’t control this.”
After only 25 days on the list, Alice received a call from Evan that they found a heart that was a match, and Ollie would immediately be prepped for surgery. The heart en route from D.C. was Millie’s heart. Alice was elated her son was getting his transplant, but she remembers feeling grief for a family she didn’t even know.
“The fact that another child had to die for my son to get his heart is the hardest part. As a mother, I still have my child and someone else doesn’t.”
The surgery was a success and afterwards doctors told Ollie’s parents that his new heart was “beautiful.” Two weeks later, he was able to return home and sleep in his own bed. Today, he is a healthy boy who enjoys swim classes and playing with his toys—there isn’t much he can’t do.
Alice and Evan eventually came into communication with Melanie and Becky, and in one of the letters they exchanged Ollie’s parents learned that Millie had what they characterized as the best laugh. Coincidentally, Alice and Evan always say Ollie has the best laugh, and he is inquisitive just like Millie was. To this day, Alice struggles with how to express her appreciation to Melanie and Becky.
“How do you say thank you for saving my son’s life? It’s hard to find the words. I would love to meet them one day if possible. More than anything, I want them to meet Ollie and that way they’ll have a sense of our gratitude.”
Millie’s parents say if she would have grown up, they would have instilled in her that you give to others what you can when you can. As much as they’d rather have her here, they are glad her spirit is remembered and that her gift is honored by Ollie and his family.
“It’s Millie’s heart, but it’s his now. It’s a piece of her that lives on. It’s peaceful to know there is a part of her still in this world,” says Melanie.
Read more about Millie’s generous gift and Ollie’s journey in this Bethesda Magazine article…