After challenges, Willie Miller starts new life as Creighton-educated nurse
Willie Miller, BSN’21, visits with a vaccine recipient at the Creighton COVID-19 community vaccine clinic in March 2021.
One Saturday in February, Willie Miller, BSN’21, walked to his car, shut the door and let himself feel an impossibly complicated mix of emotion.
Anxiety. Relief. Resignation. Hope.
Miller, a former fullback with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cornhuskers who played on the 1997 national championship team, had just finished taking the required exam to become a licensed nurse in the United States. Years of struggle and study came down to this.
“I just thought, ‘Whatever happens, God’s opened these doors for me. Even if my result isn’t the best today, next time it will be,’” Miller says.
It’s an attitude that has seen Miller, who last year graduated from the College of Nursing’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, through his share of challenges over the years. He left UNL with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and severe back pain that led to a prescription for opioid painkillers — the beginning of a decades-long addiction.
After college, he landed a job in pharmaceutical sales — an industry that he soured on after a few years. Unhappy in his profession and battling addiction, Miller says his life slowly spun out of control. His weight ballooned up to about 400 pounds. Eventually, he experienced legal troubles that worsened the situation.
“I basically crashed and burned,” he says. “I lost the house, the car, the job, everything. So, during that time, I went and lived at the Salvation Army for two years. I just didn’t know what was going on with me mentally.”
In 2017, thanks to a university program benefiting former Nebraska athletes, Miller received corrective surgery to alleviate his back pain. But, now without his prescription for painkillers, he turned to alcohol.
One day, in 2018, he drank himself into a coma.
“I had a bright-light experience,” he says. “This light picked me up, told me that it loved me, and said, ‘You’re going to get this one last go-around, but this is your last one.’ And that’s when I knew I needed help.”
He received treatment at a recovery program in Utah. With his addictions under control, he thought about his next steps and knew right away that he wanted to be a nurse. His mom had been one. But beyond that, he says, he figured he could bring a unique perspective to his patients.
“I know what it’s like to be a patient, to be scared in that hospital room and not know what’s going on,” Miller says. “I wanted to make sure that, no matter who the patient was, I could go into their room and meet them where they’re at and reassure them that they’re being taken care of by someone with compassion and empathy and expertise.”
As he puts it now, “God put Creighton in my head.” He spoke with an admissions counselor and was forthcoming about his story. He took the prerequisite science classes at Metropolitan Community College (receiving straight A’s) and began the 12-month program in January 2021. He graduated in December.
“Many times, I questioned myself and wondered if I belonged in that room,” Miller says. “It’s an arduous program in every way, shape and form. But I worked my butt off and did the best that I could, and I’m pretty proud of how I did.”
After a few restless days, Miller found out that he passed his licensing exam. Weeks later, he started a new job as a cardiovascular operating room nurse with Methodist Health System.
While at Creighton, Miller says he received positive feedback from his clinical instructors naming his ability to relate to patients as one of his strengths.
“That’s a tribute to how we’re taught at Creighton. It boils down to those Ignatian values,” he says. “Having had my own personal journey, I can relate to those so strongly. I know what it’s like to make six figures. I know what it’s like to be homeless. So, for me, it doesn’t matter what the patient looks like, I’m going to give loving care to every single one. Because that’s what I’m called to do as a nurse.”