Where Are They Now? Suzie Miller, Harvard Basketball (1995-99)
Miller has beaten a No. 1 seed, visited all seven continents, and made important contributions during the coronavirus pandemic
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Suzie Miller believes that being a Harvard basketball player helped prepare her for a career in emergency medicine in a number of ways. But, when she was applying for her medical residency, it looked for a moment like her athletic accomplishments might derail her professional goals.
“How dare you come here?” one interviewer said at the outset.
“Excuse me?” Miller responded.
“I know who you are,” he said.
Miller was on the campus of Stanford University, and her interviewer was a doctor for the Stanford athletic program. They had both been in Maples Pavilion about five years earlier, on March 14, 1998, when No. 16 seed Harvard upset No. 1 seed Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Miller, then a junior guard, had contributed 12 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 46 seconds left.
The doctor eventually broke his stern expression and “started laughing hysterically,” and Miller ended up completing her residency at Stanford.
As a player at Harvard, Miller was a 6-foot wing who could shoot from the outside as well as post up smaller guards. For her career, she averaged 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds* while shooting 38.2% from behind the arc, earning Honorable Mention All-Ivy honors in 1997-98 and helping Harvard to a 46-10 record against the Ivy League in her four seasons.
That historic game in 1998 was the first time a No. 16 seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament—a feat that would not be replicated until the UMBC men’s team beat Virginia in 2018. For Harvard, it was the culmination of three straight Ivy titles, their third bite at the March Madness apple after previous losses to Vanderbilt and North Carolina. But receiving the No. 16 seed “almost wiped away not just that year, but all three years” of accomplishments, Miller said. “… We were furious.”
The media didn’t take the Crimson seriously, either, even though they entered the tournament with a 22-4 record and boasted the nation’s leading scorer, Allison Feaster (28.5 points per game*). Miller recalled seeing jokes in the press about “which team would win if they went to the library.” But, she said, “We knew we were good. We knew we had Allison Feaster. We had nothing to lose.” They also had a strong game plan, devised by assistant coach Stefanie Pemper, and executed it well: Stanford shot just 33.3% from the floor and 25.9% from 3-point range and committed 16 turnovers.
Miller didn’t know when she hit her pivotal 3-pointer that it would provide the final margin, just as she didn’t know at the time that Harvard was the first No. 16 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game. As much as that result opened some eyes to the caliber of basketball being played in the Ivy League, Miller pointed to three other factors over the past 20 years: Feaster’s long professional career in the WNBA and overseas, Princeton’s ascent over the better part of the past decade, and the resurgence of Harvard men’s basketball under Tommy Amaker in the early 2010s. However, she admits to having mixed feelings about the latter. While she has enjoyed seeing the men’s team excel, she said, “it makes me sad that you have to have the men get better to get more recognition [for] the Ivy League.”
After completing medical school at Harvard and her residency at Stanford, Miller moved back east in 2007 to work at INOVA Fairfax Hospital, a major trauma center in Northern Virginia not far from her hometown of Potomac, Maryland. She also put her skills to work internationally by teaching emergency medicine in India, volunteering in Palestinian refugee camps, and providing disaster response services in Haiti after an earthquake in 2010. And in 2008 she joined the medical team of RacingThePlanet, which organizes self-supported ultramarathons around the world, for five races in as many years.
“When I found out that all my friends were going to the middle of nowhere across the globe and taking care of adventure racers running 250 kilometers [155 miles] self-supported over seven days, I said, ‘Get me on it immediately,’” Miller recalled. Soon after, she was in Atacama, Chile, as part of the medical team. She would later become the medical director for races in the Sahara Desert, the Gobi Desert, and Antarctica, driving up and down the course to check on staff and the race participants.
“What kept me going back was it was so fulfilling to watch people go through the—it's not even physical, but mental gymnastics required to complete this race,” Miller said. “… It actually made me a better emergency physician because I had to think about what I could do in an austere environment. If the nearest true healthcare is eight hours away, right, you really have to think about what you're able and capable of doing and how you're going to keep people safe.”
Miller would eventually set foot on all seven continents, and through her travel she realized that she had a passion for helping vulnerable populations around the world and that technology could be a real difference-maker in that area. In 2012, she became chief medical officer for the startup Eniware (pronounced “anywhere”), which develops portable sterilization technology for surgeries in the developing world. She later moved to Sydney, Australia, where she worked in an academic trauma center and as chief medical officer for Coviu, a telehealth company.
Last year, Miller, her husband, and her children moved back to the United States to be closer to family. Miller became chief medical officer for Ventec Life Systems, which makes a multi-function ventilator called VOCSN. Each of the letters stands for a different function: Ventilation, Oxygen concentrator, touch button Cough, Suction, and Nebulizer. As Miller explained:
Imagine you have ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a progressive condition that strips away basic bodily functions. VOCSN is the first and only multifunction ventilator on the market, which means you only have one device to learn and it can grow and change with your needs. So let's say you have ALS and you have to start with a little bit of ventilation at night. You can use VOCSN to do that. If you get worse and need more cough support and suctioning during the day—or even nebulizer or oxygen if you catch a respiratory disease—that's all in the same device.
Besides ALS, VOCSN can also help people who have spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, restrictive lung disease, and genetic disorders such as spinal muscular atrophy. And, crucially in today’s world, it can help people who are suffering from COVID-19.
Over the last three months, demand for VOCSN has been off the charts. Miller said that Ventec was making about 200 ventilators per month before the pandemic, but at the beginning of the pandemic, the company received calls from all over the world. Fortunately, Ventec was able to connect with General Motors, and the two companies recently partnered to open a brand-new plant in Kokomo, Indiana, to build 30,000 critical care ventilators by the end of August that will be added to the federal stockpile.
“There's just no word in the English language that can capture how unusual, strange, and scary the last three months have been,” Miller reflected. “I feel so fortunate [to have] the opportunity to help in this small way.”
Miller sees parallels between working for a startup, being an elite athlete, and working in emergency medicine, namely that “you may be trained to do one thing, but you have to translate those skills to do other things just as well.” Right now, Miller’s primary role is figuring out how to train approximately 10,000 people on how to use VOCSN, not only for COVID-19 patients but also for patients with myriad other needs. Her strategies have included everything from quick start guides to live Zoom presentations to a website that allows users to ask questions.
While Miller recognizes the important contributions she and Ventec are making during the COVID-19 pandemic, she also wrestles with feelings of guilt. “I really feel for all my emergency medicine and respiratory therapist colleagues who are literally in the middle of this,” she said. “… And I feel guilty that I haven’t been there on the front lines with them. But I take solace in the fact that I feel like I'm helping in different ways.”
During these stressful times, sports may feel like an afterthought, and having professional leagues return to play can feel like diverting attention from more urgent issues. But Miller noted that sports “are incredibly important for who we are as people and for our mental health and our ability to live happy lives. … I miss sports like you cannot believe.”
I asked Miller for her medical opinion on whether professional leagues’ return-to-play scenarios can succeed against such a contagious disease. She neither addressed specific leagues’ plans nor suggested her own blueprint, but she is optimistic that someone will find a way. “I don't know what sports are going to look like,” she said. “I do think, though, that the pandemic has made us very creative. And I think there are creative ways that we can make this happen and make it happen safely.”
To some, that might sound farfetched, an upset not unlike a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed. But Miller has seen firsthand the power of a good game plan, executed by a talented team that was nevertheless counted out. Done right, it can rewrite the history books.
*A few games are missing from Harvard’s official archives, so the players’ statistics should be viewed as approximate.
“Where Are They Now?” is a new series by the Her Hoop Stats team that spotlights former women’s basketball players, their athletic careers, and what they have gone on to do since retiring from the game. Players previously featured in this series: Kelley Hunt (UConn).