by William Atkinson
Special to CONTRACTOR
HERRIN, ILL. — Bill Miller stays busy by responding to customer calls, putting in up to 12 hours a day, something he’s been doing virtually non-stop for 30 years. One recent Sunday, for example, in the middle of an ice storm, Miller got a call from the local Red Lobster.
“They were stopped up, and they’re a good customer, so I went out to do the job,” he said.
This seems like par for the course for most plumbers. What makes Miller different is that, in 1986, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer that affects fewer than one out of every 25,000 people, most of whom are older than 60.
With no cure for the disease, Miller was given three to five years to live. Seventeen years later, he’s still alive, and he’s still working — every day.
Like most people in his profession, Miller, owner of Miller’s Plumbing and Hot Water Heat here in downstate Illinois, came to it through family.
“In fact, that’s about the only way you do get into this business anymore,” he said. “My father-in-law was a plumber and got me started.”
He began plumbing in 1972. After five years, he got his journeyman’s license and opened his own business in 1978.
“I vowed when I got sick years ago that I would cut back my hours, but it has been difficult to do,” he said, admitting that he still works 50 to 60 hours a week, even when he doesn’t feel well. “When you’re self-employed, you’re your hardest boss.”
What he enjoys most is helping people get out of a bind — when someone has a broken line or water heater, for example. These days, however, he dreads late-night and frozen-pipe calls. Miller has three employees, two journeymen who have been with him 12 and eight years, and one apprentice, who joined him three months ago.
Miller has had bone marrow transplants, donor lymphocyte infusions, chemotherapy and all the radiation he can ever have. Due to frequent exhaustion from the treatments and from the cancer itself, he mostly handles the light service calls these days, and his employees take the heavy work. Even limiting himself to this, he can still bill out between six and eight hours a day, if he has the energy.
“When I’m on chemo, the energy level just isn’t there,” he said. “By 3 p.m., I’m usually dragging, and I have to stop, whether I want to or not.”
Another reason Miller takes the light jobs is the brittleness and weakness of his bones. Because of the chemotherapy, his hips have had to be replaced. He now has two steel hips as well as rods in his back.
“The doctors have my bone system strengthened up as much as possible, but I will still occasionally break a bone when exerting myself too much,” he said, adding that he recently broke his collarbone and clavicle.
Miller doesn’t have much free time. What little he does have he spends with his family, including his two daughters and four grandchildren, whom he sees almost daily. Miller attributes his longevity to a positive attitude and his deep faith.
“I thank God every day that I can get up again,” he said. “I just try to go on with work and life as I would if I weren’t sick. I wouldn’t have wanted to just curl up in a corner when I got my diagnosis, said to myself ‘poor, old Bill’ and given up. I would have missed a lot of wonderful things these last 17 years.”
One thing that does make his life easier is that growing up and working in a town with a population of 10,000, he knows almost everyone, and almost everyone knows him. As such, customers are aware of his condition, and they are very understanding if he can’t respond immediately to their calls. And when he is on calls, he occasionally encounters customers who recently have been diagnosed with cancer themselves.
“They like to talk about it,” he said. “In fact, we may talk for 30 minutes or so while I’m working. They know I’ve had just about every treatment, and talking about it seems to help them out. I think it helps them accept their conditions a little better.
“When people are diagnosed with cancer, they’re scared to death. When I have the opportunity to talk to them, they seem to get a little bit more relaxed. They see how long I’ve been around, and it gives them some hope.”