Archdeacon: A Christmas miracle for Moraine man fighting cancer

For Dave Miller, twin sister Debbie was a perfect match as a bone marrow donor

They had just finished a short trek along both the Pinnacle Ridge Trail – where she noted the Wright Brothers are said to have gotten the idea for their aircraft’s warped-wing design as they sat and watched birds fly by – and then walked through Deer Meadow Park, where her husband had helped put in a Frisbee golf course to honor their late son, Shane.

Now that they were back in their Moraine home – having shed their hiking shoes, but still feeling the reinvigoration that comes with a crisp winter walk – she had a little time to share some of their story.

And what a story it is.

“It really is a miracle,” Rosie Miller admitted.

Today that would make it a Christmas miracle, though, as her 65-year-old husband Dave put it:

“Now every day is Christmas to me.”

He admitted it wasn’t long ago that he didn’t expect to live to see this Christmas Day. And he may not have were it not for, as Rosie put it, “the best gift ever” by his twin sister, Debbie.

Dave is one of the best known and most popular figures in Moraine. He worked for the city in various capacities – mostly as the Director of Parks and Recreation – for nearly 47 years and has been an integral part of the Rotary Club and its many community involvements for over four decades.

He’s also known for his own athletic and outdoor pursuits, many of them with Rosie and, in the case of distance running, often following her.

After playing high school football at Fairmont West and then college soccer at Morehead State, Dave returned to Moraine and while working with the rec department also made a name for himself as one of the best racquetball players in the state while serving as the pro at a couple of area racquetball centers.

While working at a Moraine club, he met Rosie Barlow, an Alter High School grad who was an assistant manager there. They eventually teamed up as mixed doubles partners and won a lot of tournaments.

With a laugh, she recounted how Dave was shy and took a long time to ask her out. When he finally did, their romance bloomed, they wed and over the years their mutual love of sports and staying active led them to biking, hiking, scuba diving and kayaking all around the country.

Along with myriad half marathons, 10K and 5K races, they ran the New York City Marathon with another local couple in 1986 – the two women also ran it sans husbands the year before – and then Dave did the Los Angeles Marathon solo in 1991 when Rosie dropped out to give birth to their son Matt, the second of their four children.

By now you get the idea. Dave Miller has always been a fitness buff and that too, he said, helped make this Christmas miracle happen.

“Over the years the rest of us would get coughs and sinus problems and bronchitis, but he’d never even get a cold,” Rosie said. “He never had anything…until six years ago.”

Dave initially retired from his city of Moraine job in early 2014 and, soon after, following a 5K race, he noticed a lump in his neck. He got it checked and was told he had Stage IV lymphoma. After surgery and a series of chemo sessions, he said his cancer was in remission within six months. Eventually he was coaxed back to work, but he also set out to accomplish the things on his ongoing Bucket List. That included visiting every state in the union – often through outdoor adventures like biking and hiking – and every national park. It’s a venture he and Rosie first launched years earlier with their kids in tow.

“After that initial diagnosis, I was good for almost four years and looking back, I really had accomplished everything on that list,” he said. “And then we were on a scuba diving trip off Key Largo (Florida) in 2018. That trip I’d made my 100th dive, then 101 and 102, as well.

“When we got back in we were going to toast my dives with a beer with everybody, but as I sat there at the table I just got sicker and sicker. I had a high fever, so I went back to the hotel room. It was our last day in Florida and when we got home I immediately went to see my oncologist.

“He told me, ‘Dave, this time it’s much worse. It’s Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).’

“They told me then I had a 15 percent chance of making it two years, but once again the Lord blessed me. I went into the hospital the day before Thanksgiving and got out the day before New Year’s. I got into remission again and had 12 to 13 wonderful months.”

Then came a routine check-up this past May 1 and some devastating news. Even though he hadn’t felt it, the cancer had “come back with a vengeance.” Within three days he was back in the hospital and going through chemo again.

“He never panicked,” said Rosie. “I’ve never seen him frazzled or fearful or upset. He has such peace about him.”

She said a lot of it has to do with his strong Catholic faith.

“He really puts everything in God’s hands,” she said. “He has an unbelievable solid rock faith and that has really helped me and our children through this.”

Dave said he adopted a mantra in this last battle with cancer: “heal or heaven.”

“I figured either way it would be a win-win for me,” he said.

As his treatment moved to the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, doctors told him his only hope of surviving would be a bone marrow transplant.

His three children all were tested as potential donors and each was a 50 percent match.

But eldest daughter Jacque was about to have a baby and Matt is a Fairfield Township police sergeant and is often out among the public in these risky COVID-19 days, so he wasn’t the safest candidate.

Youngest daughter Holly remained a viable donor, but then Debbie – who has had health issues of her own – volunteered.

“I had just a 25 percent chance of being a match for him, but they tested me because there really was no one else,” she said. “And I met all the HLA markers. I was identical, a 100 percent match!

“And there was no question then. He’s always been the best brother ever.”

‘Welcome Home Dave’

This is not the first medical miracle Dave and Debbie have been through.

“Our mom had us when she was 41, so she was high risk,” Dave said.

Not only were he and his sister born two months premature, but Dave said no one expected this was a double pregnancy: “I weighed 2 pounds, 9 ounces and when they got me out the doctor said, ‘Hey, there’s another one in there!’”

“He was taking up too much room so I kicked him out first,” cracked Debbie, who said she weighed just 2 pounds 2 ounces.

“We were born at Grandview and back then they didn’t have all the equipment like they have now,” she said. “There was no neonatal intensive care unit. They put us in incubators, but I think they told our parents, ‘Aaah, they’ve probably not gonna live.’

“But we did. We were born in September of ’55 and didn’t get out of the hospital until 1956.”

As the fraternal twins grew up, they showed they were very different people with very different personalities.

“Oh yeah, he’s real nice and soft spoken,” Debbie laughed. “Everybody loves Dave. I’m more the loud-mouthed one. Blunt. Spicy.”

While Dave stuck around Moraine his whole life, kept the same job and raised a family, Debbie was a nurse, moved around a lot and never married.

“I don’t know if I want to use the word vagabond, but she travelled a lot,” Dave said.

Debbie said she worked in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CICU) of a hospital outside of Pittsburgh for a decade, then worked in the CICU at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and in a hospice ward in Jacksonville, Fla.

Five years ago, with Dave’s help, she moved back here and now lives in Kettering.

When she decided to be her brother’s donor, Debbie committed herself to becoming as healthy as she could, Rosie said.

At the James, Debbie said she donated 4.2 million stem cells and Dave received the transplant Aug. 17.

He spent 34 days in the hospital and another 3 ½ months staying at a nearby Airbnb where Rosie had been living since he’d had the transplant. With the COVID regulations limiting access to the hospital, she’d had very specific times to visit him.

She said doctors marveled because of how much walking Dave had done in the hospital and then through the Columbus metro parks and on other hikes in the city – sometimes going up to 5 to 6 miles at a time.

The couple finally was able to return to Moraine on Dec. 5.

As they were headed back to their subdivision, they passed the local fire station where a huge banner had been erected that read:

“Welcome Home Dave!”

‘Every day ... is Christmas to me’

When Dave was first diagnosed with AML and was hospitalized, Rosie thought she was going to have to bring him home in a wheelchair and worried how they’d be able to navigate their carpeted floors.

She mentioned to a neighbor that they were thinking of ripping out the carpet and putting in a hardwood floor and asked him if he knew who she could talk to for an estimate.

The next thing she knew some 50 people in the community – neighbors, friends, Dave’s old classmates, people from church and work – banded together and put in a new, hardwood floor for free.

“I wouldn’t live in any other community than Moraine,” Dave said. “Every time I’ve had cancer people here have rallied around me and my family. They’ve just been awesome.”

Rosie agreed: “They’ve gone beyond what people normally do for someone. It’s just a wonderful group of people. There just so much love here in Moraine. And I think all that has helped Dave survive this, too.

“I really believe, in so many ways, this healing is a miracle.”

As she was recounting their story the other day, she admitted a hesitance she’d been struggling with:

“I feel a little awkward telling our story right now. I know so many people are hurting now. So many people are suffering from COVID, so many people have passed away and families are grieving now. I’ve worried this might not be a good time to tell all this now.”

Actually, it’s the perfect time.

People need a story of struggle where something good happens.

And though, as Debbie said, her brother “isn’t out of the woods” yet, he has had so many good things happen over the past six years, especially recently.

“Over and over God shows us we can enjoy life,” Rosie said.

In the past 19 months Dave said he’s seen his first grandchild born (Jacque gave birth to daughter Elizabeth on Oct. 30) and both his son Matt and daughter Holly were married (in the summer of 2019).

Rosie said Dave walked Holly down the aisle at St. Albert’s Catholic Church on Far Hills Ave. and then gave a touching toast and prayer at the reception.

Like Dave said: “Every day really is Christmas to me.”

Yet this Christmas Day – with Dave’s immune system compromised and the threat of COVID everywhere – the family will mostly celebrate separately.

Over in Kettering, Debbie said she doesn’t mind:

“I don’t want any presents. My brother being alive is enough of a present for me. That’s as good as it gets.”

That’s a Christmas miracle.

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