PUEBLO WEST — Sara Millard lost half her body weight during the first 24 hours of her life.
Even back then, down to 4 pounds, she was feisty.
Doctors soon learned Sara had severe hypertension and kidney disease and they weren’t sure she’d live.
She had her first surgery at 6 weeks, her first heart attack in kindergarten and her first dialysis session at 14.
When she was 16, her dad donated one of his kidneys. For over a year, it looked like that transplant would take. But Sara became ill with a vicious infection called sepsis. Doctors had to pump her with drugs that saved her life, but forced them to remove the kidney.
She had to resume dialysis and cope with bouts of severe illness.
During one rough hospital stay, with a tracheostomy preventing her from speaking, Sara used sign language to give her parents a dire message: “I want to die. I’m ready to be with Jesus.”
A fighter, she survived that ordeal and regained her trademark optimism and quick wit. Altogether, Sara estimates she’s had over 150 abdominal surgeries during her 31 years.
Her 152nd appears to have been the lucky one.
On March 17, thanks to an organ donor, Sara received a new kidney at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital, putting an end to 17 years on dialysis.
Now, she can barely erase a huge grin from her face. She’s relishing life without the grind of dialysis and right over her new kidney, Sara gets to wear a big shiny silver and gold belt buckle. It’s her trophy from winning the world championships in her Old West-style event called cart shooting.
In June, just three months after getting her transplant, Sara strapped a corset around her belly for protection, donned the 1800s garb she wears for competitions and completed a perfect loop at the Single Action Shooting Society’s championships in Edgewood, N.M. She raced through a course, steering her horse and cart at high speed with her left hand while shooting with her right, hitting every target with a replica of a .45-Colt revolver.
She did it all with her trusty sidekick and fellow champion, a miniature white horse named Tazz, who just happens to be blind.
Sara is only 4’7,’’ so she and her horse are a perfect pair.
“He’s 30 inches tall. He’s completely blind. We both had a rough start in life. We’ve both gotten through those challenges and gotten through them in our own way.”
As Sara clinched her victory in June, defending her championship and winning her division for a fourth time, she thought the whole time about the kidney that was sustaining her. Another family had lost a loved one, but given her the gift of life. Sara dedicated her winning race to her mystery donor. Someday she hopes to meet her donor’s family. She’s keeping a journal to share with them.
This Sunday, Sara will be supporting the Donor Dash in Denver’s Washington Park. She’s encouraging everyone to become organ donors. She’s also eager to keep hope alive for all those who are still waiting for transplants.
Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug, who won bronze in 2002 after a liver transplant, has tapped Sara to become an ambassador for his foundation. Together with Chris, Sara will promote organ donations and support patients. As an ambassador, she’ll be wearing her belt buckle and embracing Klug’s mantra: “Live life. Give life.”
A blind horse with a sixth sense
Growing up in Boulder County and Thornton, Sara spent so much time at Children’s Hospital Colorado that she joked it was her home away from home. Still, she never lost her sense of humor.
Impatient to be discharged after the first transplant, Sara elicited big laughs from her dad when she borrowed a line from a favorite TV show, Full House, and quipped, “Quick. If they’re not looking, we can get to the fence by midnight.”
All her life, Sara never has held back.
“I sang in the church choir. I played basketball, did gymnastics, was on the golf team and the tennis team. I knew life was going to be short. When you get a death sentence on day one, you pretty much try to live life to the fullest,” Sara said.
Two weeks after starting high school, Sara had to go on dialysis. Tethered to treatments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she nonetheless felt her brain clearing from poisons that her body previously couldn’t fully process. She began to dream of going to college and despite hospital stays, got straight As. She earned a scholarship to Northeastern Junior College where she studied initially to be a nurse, then to be an emergency medical technician.
She passed all the written exams, but during the physical test for her EMT certification, Sara’s dialysis port ruptured.
Stymied in her dreams to work in health care, Sara found solace in the Old West traditions that her parents loved.
Her mom’s family lived in Sterling on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. There, Sara’s grandmother was an accomplished horsewoman. One famous family photo shows her as a little girl, grinning in the saddle as her big horse rears up on its hind legs. Sara’s grandfather had mules and a cart and used them to drive the area garbage cart back in the1930s and 40s.
While getting her fearlessness and the horse bug from her mom, Vicky, she got the shooting passion from her dad, John. By age 7, Sara discovered that she had great aim and loved doing target practice with her dad.
Tazz came along soon after Sara turned 21. She spent her birthday in the hospital, and recalls it now with a sassy one-liner: “Instead of Jell-O shots, I got Jell-O.”
While she can look back with humor now, those days were pretty dark. Sara was having trouble breathing after having a surgery called a parathyroidectomy. She also started having seizures. They were a side-effect of the dialysis as her body struggled to properly process calcium.
Vicky knew her daughter was down. By then, Vicky and John Millard had moved to Pueblo West. They wanted to live in a quieter area where they could keep horses. Vicky spotted an ad in the paper for a miniature horse. His owners had registered him with the name Lil’ Bit of Tazz. A feisty stallion, he came from a line of champions. Miniature horses once were popular among royalty, then bred to haul heavy loads out of coal mines. Tazz was strong, but he was too small and too fat. He had been born with donkey feet instead of proper horses’ hooves. He was considered a throw-away horse. A looker, nonetheless, he was 10 months old and sported thick curls of white hair. His eyes had a bluish cast, a sign of a condition called moon blindness that would ultimately rob him of all his sight. Several miniature horse breeders had passed on Tazz.
Vicky thought he was perfect.
When Sara got out of the hospital, Vicky figured Tazz might give her just the boost she needed.
Sara arrived home to find the funny little white horse out in the back yard with the dogs.
“It was love at first sight,” Sara said. “He knew I needed him. I was struggling to walk and breathe. Everything starts to atrophy when you’re in the hospital. He led me around the yard and everything was good.”
Sara and Tazz have been inseparable ever since. She spent every day training him, then took him to shows. Her parents, meanwhile, were participating in shooting competitions where they ride their horses and shoot like outlaws from the pioneer days.
Cart shooting is a variation on the theme. Sara had never heard of the sport, but figured she’d give it a try with Tazz. She soon learned that he did fine hurtling around courses as she steered him. It turned out Tazz had a racer’s soul.
“Pretty soon, he didn’t want to show anymore. He didn’t want to stand still. If it’s fast and he gets to race, he’s all in. He’s a goofball,” Sara said.
When she finishes races or training runs, he never wants to leave.
“It’s like getting a toddler out of the pool,” Sara said.
Tazz has a sixth sense too. He never was trained as a service animal, but is so in tune with Sara that he senses when she’s in trouble. Twice, when she’s had seizures, Tazz has come to the rescue.
In 2009, Sara had two heart attacks and three small strokes in a row.
Soon after she recovered, she was walking Tazz around in a horse show. Perhaps her hand was trembling a bit. Somehow Tazz knew to act. He gently pushed Sara to the ground, allowing her to break her fall rather than hitting the ground hard and risking a head injury.
“He wrapped his body around me. He seemed to know it was going to happen. I could have broken my neck.”
Afterwards, onlookers watched as the blind horse hooked his halter under Sara’s hand and helped her up.
“He wouldn’t let anybody touch me until I was back at the trailer and sitting. It was like he was saying, ‘We’re both going to recover. You’re going to be fine and I’m going to be fine.’”
Another time, the two were racing. Sara was behind Tazz, sitting in her cart and guiding him at high speed through a course in Wyoming. Her parents were watching from the stands. Suddenly, Sara started to have a seizure. Tazz immediately slowed the cart, turned around and leaned to one side. He gently tipped Sara from her seat.
“He’s gotten me out of a few jams,” said Sara. “He’s amazing. He knows when I’m having a bad day and automatically kisses me, as if to say, ‘You’re OK.’”
Racing and waiting
Over the years, through medical challenge after medical challenge, Sara and Tazz kept training and racing. But, she was desperate to qualify for a kidney.
Finally, she got the call in March.
Sara made arrangements for someone to feed the dogs and horses so her parents could come along if necessary. She got confirmation that the kidney was a solid match and she raced to the transplant center at University of Colorado Hospital.
There she met Dr. Trevor Nydam.
“I’m going to be your surgeon,” he said.
“I’m going to be your patient,” Sara replied with a grin.
It turned out they would remember each other well.
Once Dr. Nydam began the surgery, he found a thicket of scar tissue. Sara had endured so many surgeries that there was little room to place the new kidney.
“This was probably the most challenging kidney transplant that I’ve personally done and maybe for our program too,” Nydam said.
“She’s a sweetheart,” he said of Sara. “But it took hours and we were lucky to find vessels we could sew the new kidney onto.”
Given Sara’s complications, Nydam also knew it would take time her body to adapt to the kidney.
When Sara woke up, she got a big dose of medications and learned that she would need at least one round of dialysis. Fueled in part by steroids that made her extra testy, Sara was furious. She thought she was done with dialysis for good.
Typically Nydam checked on his patient with a whole crew of students and team members in tow. But he sensed that Sara needed some one-on-one time. So Nydam walked into the room a couple of days after the transplant, sat on the couch so he could talk to her at eye level and he shared some details with his patient.
“This was a difficult surgery,” he told her. “We had issues trying to get the kidney to fit.
“After all she’s been through, I could see it was difficult for her to be the patient again. It was killing her. I told her, ‘We need to hang tough and get through this.’”
Sara felt her anger draining away. She started weeping and said she was sorry for being mad.
Nydam told her not to apologize and asked what she needed to feel better.
Sara wanted to be untethered for a short time so she could go make a brief trip downstairs to the hospital chapel with her brother, Eric, one of her primary caretakers after the transplant.
Sara’s new dream is to be a hospital chaplain or a minister for cowboy gatherings. She’s been studying to become a Christian leader.
Nydam told her she was free to go to the chapel.
She and her Eric went down and sat in the peace of the quiet, dark room. More than praying, Sara remembers talking.
She confessed that she was thinking about her donor. She felt both sad and grateful. Nydam had told her it was OK to have a mix of emotions.
It turned out that that short trip to the chapel was the turning point Sara needed. After returning to her room, she caught Nydam’s eye and he gave her a big thumbs up. From then on, Sara felt significantly better. Though delayed at first, her body began to adapt to the new kidney.
Now, four months post-transplant, Nydam says Sara’s outlook is excellent.
“Hopefully it will last a long time,” he said of her new kidney. “There’s a good chance she’ll do really well.”
He said most kidney transplant recipients do remarkably well.
“It’s one of the best moves we can make in all of medicine. It doubles your life span. There’s a huge benefit,” he said.
He’s thrilled, too, that Sara has gone back to racing with Tazz.
“I want her to live the life she wants to live,” Nydam said.
Sara has been recording the ups and downs of her transplant journey. She’s been composing a letter in her mind that she’ll send the donor’s family. Next summer, before she competes in the next world championships, she plans to take off her belt buckle and frame it in a beautiful shadow box.
Then, when the time is right, she’d like to present it to the donor’s family.
“I’m living for them. I want to make this kidney a lasting legacy.”