From Psychiatric Patient to Hospital CEO
Dennis Miller tried to kill his father with a butter knife when he was a boy. The psychological abuse from his father was too much for him.
“I always grew up feeling I was an orphan, because I really felt I had no parents,” Miller said. “But how could I have people believe I was an orphan when I had a house with a built-in swimming pool and a backyard?”
The appearance of his home in Carteret, New Jersey, was well maintained. Miller said his father cared more about the furniture than his children.
Miller’s father would often sit in his room, eating peanuts and watching TV. When he did pay attention to his children, he incessantly criticized them.
“My father would enrage you, he would be provocative,” Miller said. “He didn’t care how you felt, it was all about him. … I would not take it, I couldn’t stand for it.”
A butter knife may not seem the most lethal of weapons, but Miller avows the blind rage his father incited could have made it lethal. “He’s lucky I didn’t kill him,” Miller said. “I could have easily killed him with the anger he would provoke in me.”
His mother was sad. She was distant, resigned. Though she contributed in some ways to the depressive environment in the home, she did try to encourage her children to become better than their father.
Miller’s life got a lot worse before it got better.
By the age of 20, he had taken to “self-medicating” with illegal drugs and he eventually hit a breaking point. “I just couldn’t cope with being alive,” he said. He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital.
Miller found his sense of self-worth after a lot of searching, and with the help of a supportive friend, Father Donald Gantley.
This priest, now 90 years old and still a friend of Miller’s, “was my guardian angel,” Miller said. He listened with compassion. He supported Miller in many ways, including helping him find a job.
“He was an incredible, giving man that demanded nothing in return,” Miller said.
From Janitor to Ivy-League Graduate
After Miller left the hospital, he got a job mopping floors at a Ramada Inn. But he was determined to do more.
He hadn’t done well in school. His teachers told his mother he could have aced his courses if he applied himself, but the behavioral problems that often arise from psychological abuse held him back.
He was humiliated when he couldn’t get into any colleges besides the local county college that had to admit all applicants by law. He went ahead and studied business at the county college.
Through counseling, he became more psychologically and emotionally stable and this allowed him to concentrate on his studies like never before. Rutgers University was his next stop, then Columbia University.
He recalled the moment he received his acceptance letter from Columbia. “This is a thick letter, this can’t be a rejection,” he thought, “Rejection letters are just one page.”
“I was looking around to hug somebody,” he said.
Miller went from being a psychiatric patient, to mopping floors, to graduating from Ivy League colleges, to becoming the CEO of the Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.
Encounter With a Mass Murderer
Though his time as a hospital CEO was a triumphant one in his life, it was also shadowed by tragedy.
A nurse named Charles Cullen worked for the hospital during Miller’s time as CEO. Cullen pleaded guilty in 2004 to murdering 13 patients at Somerset Medical and attempting to murder two more.
He is one of the most prolific serial killers in American history, having killed at least 40 patients at various hospitals during his 16-year career. He poisoned his victims with medications. He was caught while working at Miller’s hospital.
“The Charles Cullen issue was a very difficult episode in my professional career,” Miller said. “There is no amount of training as a health care executive to ever prepare you to deal with a mass murderer employed by your organization.
“Though I knew that I was not legally responsible for his actions, I was personally devastated by them. He killed patients in our hospital and I felt horrible for their deaths and the grief and loss suffered by their families,” Miller said.
Miller continued, “It’s an irony, that as CEO of the medical center, I accepted my self-responsibility for getting professional support for my mental health issues, while someone we employed needed it the most and never did.”
Message of Hope
Even though Miller’s path through life hasn’t been smooth, the important message he carries forth is, “There is a path forward.”
He repeated this phrase a few times. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” he said. “Regardless of your past or present life circumstances, regardless of how despairing it may be, regardless of how difficult it may be, there is hope, there is a path forward.”
He is now a motivational speaker and strategic leadership coach, working with leaders of nonprofit organizations. Miller recently published his autobiography, “Moppin’ Floors to CEO.”
Many people are held back by fear of failure or fear of admitting weakness and asking for help, Miller said. For him, seeking help “was not easy, it was humiliating.”
But it was the first step in building self-confidence. Self-confidence is important in life, Miller said, and it is built through incremental gains and small achievements.
Letting go of blame and taking responsibility for oneself is also important, he said.
Forgiving His Parents
Miller came to understand that his father was a deeply unhappy man. “He was a human being. He grew up tragically somehow. It’s a shame he never enjoyed life,” Miller said.
A lot of his father’s negative behaviors were learned from his mother, Miller’s grandmother. He also didn’t grow up in a happy home.
Miller’s siblings haven’t fared quite as well as he has; they have struggled with substance abuse, abusive relationships, and other hardships. But they all graduated from college—an impressive feat, said Miller, considering neither of their parents graduated from high school.
His father passed away in 2004 and his mother in 2008. Late in life, his father expressed some regret. He opened up to Miller’s wife and tried to show his love for Miller in various ways, such as helping with home repairs and renovations.
“My life is a lesson about recovering, moving on, building new identities, becoming stronger,” Miller said. “Life can change. I’m a happy guy, I enjoy my life. I could not have imagined that 30 years ago.”