When Jill Hasenkopf was 26 years old, she went on a first date with a new friend one night — but during the evening, she noticed that her cell phone battery had died.

She quickly asked her date to take her home. When she got there, she found 24 messages on her answering machine.

The first was from an organ donor transplant coordinator at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, offering her a healthy kidney — the first step in fulfilling her 18-month dream to receive a kidney transplant.

The other calls were from 23 friends and relatives desperately trying to tell her the news. Her date rushed her to the Pittsburgh hospital so she could undergo the life-saving transplant surgery.

Now Dr. Jill Miller, the Saegertown resident had no way of knowing 11 years ago that the surgery would not only save her life, but also lead her to a career in medicine and, most recently, give her a ride on a Rose Bowl Parade float.

Besides ending her dependence on dialysis, the new kidney literally saved her life the following year when she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of breast cancer. Doctors told her that without the transplant, she wouldn’t have been able to endure the chemotherapy she received. She has been cancer-free for more than 10 years.

The young woman had been on a dialysis machine for 18 months before the transplant — the results of kidney failure after an undiagnosed case of strep throat. During the dialysis treatments, she had the opportunity to act as a liaison between her fellow patients at the dialysis clinic and the staff as the patient representative for Network 4 (the Pennsylvania region).

Helping others on dialysis spurred an interest in pursuing a medical career, and she now works as a local physician.

And she is still excited to discuss her recent New Year’s Day opportunity to ride on a float in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, Calif. She was among five organ recipients chosen nationwide to ride on the Organ Donor Awareness float.

Miller had joined a “transplant games team” a couple of years ago in Pittsburgh, competing in various events for people who had organ transplants. Early last year the team sent an e-mail to its members informing them of an essay contest for which five winners would be guests on the float.

Miller said she already had a lot of her story written down for use on a Web site, so she quickly sent it in. Very quickly, in fact: Her husband, Erik, was waiting for her to go somewhere, so she had to hurry, taking just a few minutes to enter.

“I was completely shocked at winning (as her region’s representative),” Miller said. There were more than 100 entries from this region of the country, and seven tied for first before it was narrowed down to hers.

It wasn’t just the idea of riding in the parade that excited her, though.

“Ever since my transplant, I wanted to make people aware (of the importance of organ donations.) So many people are waiting for transplants that don’t happen,” she said. And the Rose Bowl Parade float is all about creating awareness of the importance of organ donations. “Life Takes Flight” was the theme this year in celebration of those whose lives have been touched by transplantation.

The five winners from across the nation also had the privilege of helping decorate the float, arriving in California on Dec. 28. “When I got there, I felt like a queen,” Miller said, describing a wide variety of gifts she received. She laughed as she said they needed an extra travel bag just to take home all the goodies. “They treated us like celebrities,” including limousine service to and from the airport to their Saegertown home.

Decorations for the Rose Bowl Parade floats are made completely of flowers. Miller said she started working with carnations, and ended up by stringing orchids together.

“It was so beautiful, so awesome,” she said.

Although Miller never learned the identity of her organ donor, many others do. Some of the organ recipients on the float held pictures of their donors, and some of the families of the donors also were guests. As part of the tribute, the pictures were made into giant hot-air balloon “floragaphs” on the float, adding special significance and meaning.

“It was very emotional for everyone to have the donor families there; we were so happy to meet them,” Miller said, acknowledging the big loss the families endured for the organ donations to be made.

She also was excited to be part of all the pre-parade festivities, meeting NBC “Today” show weatherman Al Roker, and seeing many of the other floats.

“I was just thrilled to be a part of it; it was really amazing,” she said.

And following the festivities, Jill, Erik and their 4-year-old son, Roan, put the perfect ending on the trip: They went to Disneyland.


n Current waiting list: 92,000

n Added each day: 3,700

n Organ recipients: About 77 per day

n Each day, 18 people die waiting for transplants.

Organs and tissues that are donated include kidney, heart, liver, lung, pancreas, intestines, cornea, skin, bone and bone marrow.


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