Steve Miller: "Teacher, Mentor, Friend, Actor"
WHEN NEWS ARRIVED ON THE MORNING OF OCT. 20, 2004, THAT P&S pediatrician and beloved teacher Steve Miller'84 was on an airplane that crashed the night before in northeast Missouri, disbelief soon gave way to despair.
Hope briefly took hold in the passing hours as news reports suggested some of the passengers in the small commuter plane were missing.
Confusion set in when news outlets in New York City confirmed his death while the family awaited official word.
As an e-mail to students from Dean of Students Linda Lewis and Associate Dean for Education Ron Drusin eloquently stated at the end of the day, "We will keep you informed as we all wait for more news, hoping for the best while anticipating news of his death."
The answer came the next day, when Steven Zane Miller's death was confirmed by federal authorities.
Left in the wake of the roller coaster emotions was a family torn apart — one now headed by another member of the P&S family, Dodi Meyer — and scores of medical, nursing, and office staff, pediatrics colleagues, medical school leadership, fellow P&S alumni, and students past and present devastated by their own loss of a teacher many of them considered their favorite.
The grief was profound throughout P&S, but the students were most visibly shaken.
They gathered to share memories, participated in the family's service, helped plan a medical center celebration of his life, dedicated a Bard Hall Players production to the former Bard Player, and prepared entries for a book of letters for the family.
"Actor and Friend"
A month after his death, the Bard Hall Players dedicated its Nov. 18-21 "Anything Goes" run to Dr. Miller — "teacher, mentor, friend, actor" — who had participated in Bard Hall Players productions during all four years of medical school.
He directed "Fiddler on the Roof" and played Cliff Bradshaw in "Cabaret," Prince Dauntless in "Once Upon a Mattress," Harry in "Company," Louis in "Pippin," and one of the leads in "Two Gentlemen of Verona."
Stephanie Leonard'05, who directed the 2004 "Anything Goes," says Dr. Miller had been invited to make a cameo appearance in the production.
"We were excited at the possibility of sharing the stage with him.
He was a true Bard Hall Player.
His constant interest in and support for our shows fostered a sense of acceptance and approval impossible to duplicate.
Steve believed that it was important to be a complete person.
For him, being in Bard Hall Players was a way to remember that he was still human.
It was a way to get to know people in other capacities of their lives and appreciate them for talents that might have otherwise remained hidden throughout medical school.
"Bard Hall Players hope to carry on that tradition."
Some of his former classmates and fellow Players were in the audience for the November show, including Roy Gulick'86, who directed "Anything Goes" at P&S in 1984.
Dr. Gulick, associate professor of medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell, was Dr. Miller's roommate from 1984 to 1989.
"My first involvement with the Bard Hall Players was in the fall of 1982, when I first met Steve, a third-year student at the time."
The show was "Fiddler on the Roof."
"Steve directed and I played the part of Perchik, the radical student."
In the winter of 1983, the Bard Hall Players did "Godspell."
"I was in the cast but Steve was doing his third-year medicine rotation (traditionally a time when you couldn't do a BHP show), but he sang the wrenching song 'On the Willows' off stage, as is called for in the script."
In the fall of 1983, Dr. Gulick directed "Once Upon a Mattress" and cast Dr. Miller in the leading male role of Prince Dauntless.
"He wore nerdy glasses and a silver crown (that matched his famous premature grey hair)."
Dr. Gulick directed "Anything Goes" in the fall of 1984.
"Steve, now doing his internship in pediatrics in the Bronx, wasn't involved — but attended the show with enthusiasm!"
Dr. Gulick says.
Dr. Miller was considered an inspiration to the students he had taught for the past 11 years, and he considered education a priority.
When Glenda Garvey'69 died in March 2004, Dr. Miller wrote a remembrance of her effect on him and other students as a role model and teacher.
What he wrote about her could easily be said of him: "When I think of Dr. Garvey — Glenda — I think of someone who let us be human and challenged us to be the best.
I think of how much she loved and how much we love her.
We are forever changed by having known her — and so is Columbia."
Consider the parallel in these words one student, Liat Simkhay'05, wrote to him for the family service: ". . . you cared so deeply and so profoundly about every single person you met, including every single one of your students and residents.
You strove to show each of us how we could become the best possible doctors and to model for us a way to combine a never-ending thirst for knowledge with a deep passion for both medicine and for helping others.
"Dr. Miller, I want you to know that you are so incredibly loved. You are so incredibly missed. And we are all so incredibly lucky to have known you."
A 1999 issue of P&S Journal profiled five teachers who might be considered 50 years from now as the teaching greats from the 1990s.
Steve Miller was one of them.
"I try to show [students] that it is important to do things in a certain order," he said in the article.
"You gain confidence doing things again and again the same way.
That allows you to concentrate on listening to patients, connecting better with them."
One student mentioned the decision trees he would draw to help students approach the diagnostic task.
"You could go to any bedside and decide what to do if you use this tree," said Dr. Miller.
"A lot of experts have forgotten how to articulate what they are doing.
It is important for us to unfold our clinical reasoning.
The skill of a teacher is to break down a complex task like clinical reasoning or patient interaction into its individual steps."
He also believed that bedside manner is a conscious skill that can be learned and he encouraged a three-step strategy to make sure students treat patients properly.
"I think there are some genuinely powerful ways to improve patient skills.
It's not a simple matter. It takes hard work. You've got to respect where the patient is coming from."
In 1998, Dr. Miller was behind the creation of the clinical transition ceremony to help second-year students as they moved into their major clinical year.
He received a standing ovation at the ceremony in June 2004, the school's seventh ceremony.
"Teacher, Mentor, Friend"
His bond with students has been illustrated by John Driscoll, M.D., chairman of pediatrics, who admitted that he didn't know the full impact of Dr. Miller's interaction with students until after his death.
"All of us in pediatrics admired Steve beyond words, but I learned so much more about him as students shared their stories of Steve.
For example, every Friday afternoon was Miller time with the students in pediatrics.
He would spend 45 minutes on a teaching case and then switch gears and ask the students where he should take Dodi for dinner.
Each student would offer a suggestion, hoping that he would pick theirs, further evidence of their admiration for him."
The residents Dr. Miller mentored also contributed to his success with students.
"Both current and past residents felt his loss acutely," Dr. Driscoll says.
"His successful education program in the third-year peds clerkship was based on his teaching the pediatric residents how to be the best teachers, and he provided them with constant feedback."
Memorial gifts may be sent to the Steven Miller'84 Memorial Endowment Fund at the P&S Alumni Association, 630 W. 168th St., New York, NY 10032.
For information, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-305-3498.
Readers also may send messages of remembrance, which will be collected for the family.