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Miller ’93: Finding solace for the dying

Dr. Bruce J. “BJ” Miller ’93 makes a living taking care of the dying.

Miller, a palliative care specialist, was recently selected to receive one of the Project on Death in America’s annual Leadership Awards at the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine’s 2014 Annual Assembly in San Diego, according to his co-worker Dr. Shelley Adler.

In 2011, Miller became executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. The center provides a residence and care for those whose prognosis calls for less than six months to live, but Miller said that the center’s work has as much to do with helping residents use the time remaining “[to find] solace” as it does with medical science.

“He’s one of those people that you pretty much could have called up anyone who knows him and heard all the wonderful things,” Adler said. “He is consistently appreciated, loved, adored, thought so highly of … He works with people at the end of life who are frequently in a lot of distress, and he has a way of connecting with people, making them feel heard, because he really does hear them.”

Miller said he believed that it was important to have a project focused solely on hospice care, explaining that he believed a “purpose-filled environment” was necessary for higher quality of life in one’s last few months.

He had a near-death experience of his own at the University. On Nov. 27, 1990, Miller climbed on top of a parked Dinky train after a night of drinking and was severely burned from contact with the wire that ran above the train. He had to undergo multiple operations, and his legs and left hand were amputated in the process.

He had a near-death experience of his own at the University. On Nov. 27, 1990, Miller climbed on top of a parked Dinky train after a night of drinking and was severely burned from contact with the wire that ran above the train. He had to undergo multiple operations, and his legs and left hand were amputated in the process.

Lawsuits against the UniversityNew Jersey Transit, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, Cottage Club and Campus Club were eventually settled.

Tucker said that while she believed Miller was “a better person” than he was 20 years ago, she cautioned against assuming that Miller’s accident transformed who he was.

“We’ve all grown up a lot in the last 20 years,” Tucker said.

Miller, for his part, said he believed that his accident had a “deepening” rather than transformational effect, explaining that philosophical questions he had already been considering became more relevant to him. He said his heightened interest in these questions led him to change his major from East Asian studies to art history.

“Palliative care has some very philosophical questions. What is meaning? Why do we suffer? The stuff of religion and philosophy and art,” Miller said. “After my injuries, I switched my major to art history because of these very questions. [Studying art] also helped me get serious about perspective.”

Miller said his work as a clinician and an academic lecturer has led him to some tentative answers.

“Whenever I ask this question — ‘Who in the audience, if you could choose to live forever, would do so?’ — it’s probably 99.9 percent of people [who] say they would not,” Miller said. “The relationship of our mortality … and the ability of humans to find meaning is profound.”

Adler said Miller’s outlook of “seeing death and dying as part of the natural life cycle” ultimately becomes a source of comfort to his patients, especially those who feel alone.

“He really engages with people in a really natural way, as an equal,” Adler said. “When he’s talking to patients, he really sees everyone as part of the same natural process, so everybody’s on the same level, and people really respond to that.”

Virginia Tucker ’93, a friend and classmate of Miller’s, said the way he works and interacts with patients makes his compassion evident.

“So many times people are driven by money or recognition or those kind of things,” Tucker said, “and I think BJ really has a heart for recognizing that … there’s so much not only financial and medical but also emotional inefficiency in the way that people die, and he really wants to alleviate that for as many people as he can.”

Among Miller’s other ventures include co-founding Tribute Tea Company with a friend in 2002.

Around the time of the company’s founding, the “day to day” aspects of his job were distracting him from his larger goals, which contributed to his decision to engage in a new venture, Miller said. He also finds the process of tea-making itself to be “something you could spend a lifetime playing around with.”

Miller said his future goals include getting “to 10 times our size” in staff at the Zen Hospice Project over the next five to 10 years, possibly eventually exploring prosthetic development “and who knows what else?”

“There wouldn’t be much place in our world if we lived forever,” Miller said. “One hundred percent of people suffer. One hundred percent of us die. It’s thrilling to be part of something that relevant.”

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