INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - He’s supposed to be angry. Right? Angry at the tie rod for busting, angry at all the pain that followed, angry that he’ll never get his old life back. His SUV slammed into the median at 60 mph that day, and before it could somersault across the highway, it tried to slice off John Miller’s legs.
And it damn near did. He skidded across the interstate like a rag doll; they found him some 300 yards from his SUV, road rash head to toe, bone bulging from ankle, blood emptying onto asphalt. The first witness on the scene said a prayer, certain he was gone. The first doctor to get a glimpse of his ankles called them “sawdust.”
In the emergency room, they summoned the clergy, ready to read this man his last rites.
But John Miller wasn’t ready to go. Not like that. Nine surgeries over two weeks saved him from becoming a double-amputee, but as the doctors reattached broken legs to a broken body, everything else in John’s life fell apart. Doctors told him he’d never walk again - not normally at least - and he could forget ever trying to run again.
His marriage ended. The medical bills piled up, so he sold the house he’d built by hand and moved into the basement of a coffee shop. Either that, he says, or end up homeless.
So that was the first year after the crash, and that was home: the basement of Charlie Brown’s Pancake and Steak House in Speedway. John rose at 5:30 a.m. each day, slid from bed and into his wheelchair. He rode the elevator up to the first floor, unlocked the doors and let the cooks in. He poured himself a cup of coffee. He slid some change into the cash register. He pieced a shattered life back together.
“The million-dollar man,” friends would call him, referring to his mountain of medical bills.
“More like a million and a half,” John would correct them, smiling as he always does.
How does a man respond when life is flipped on its end? It’s now been six years since the accident. John, 59, still can’t work. His feet throb when he climbs the stairs. He’s forever a prisoner of those few, fateful moments from April 21, 2010, the day his old world died on a stretch of I-65. He could’ve burned with rage or buried himself in self pity, and no one could blame him. Right?
But that’s the thing. Save your pity for someone else. All John Miller seems to do is smile, and his doctors say that’s the secret. He sees the good in life, even when there isn’t much good to see. It’s how he crawled from the depths of a shattered life, how he went from road rash head to toe, ankles that looked like “sawdust” and a year spent in a wheelchair in the basement of a coffee shop to . here. Here is where they said he’d never be.
The patient the doctors said would never run again?
He’ll be on the starting line for Saturday’s OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon.
The nurses couldn’t even recognize him that day. He arrived at Wishard Memorial Hospital, skin roasted from the asphalt, lower legs a few snips-of-the-scissors away from severed for good, and they couldn’t even tell it was John. Any other day they would have. He’d been a paramedic there for 20 years.
He’d spent a career inside ambulances. For 19 years, John worked for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, tasked with the most gruesome of assignments: Pick up race car drivers who’d smashed into the wall (or worse yet, each other) at more than 200 mph and get them safely to the hospital. He became numb to the suddenness and shock of an accident.
He’d built his dream log cabin in the woods outside Speedway. He’d swing by his favorite breakfast spot, Charlie Brown’s, after his night shift ended at 7 a.m. His favorite stress release? Long jogs with his running partner, a loyal-as-can-be German Shepherd named Max.
“Bone coming out of skin. It was truly a mangled extremity.”
Dr. Brian Mullis, on the first time he saw John Miller’s left ankle
Then, the crash. It happened so fast, the way they always do. John was driving home from a life trauma course he taught at St. Francis Hospital on the south side. It was rush hour. I-65. The tie rod on John’s white Oldsmobile Bravada snapped. He lost control. The SUV pummeled into the median and he flew out, through his seatbelt and through the driver’s side window and onto the pavement. The car ricocheted off the median and smashed into his legs, then flipped a few more times down the exit ramp.
Ribs were shattered. Skin was gashed. He’d suffered a traumatic brain injury. He lay there, unconscious and bleeding and clinging to life.
Worst of all, though, were his ankles. They were pulverized. The right was bad. The left was worse.
“Bone coming out of skin,” remembers Dr. Brian Mullis, the trauma surgeon who treated John. “It was truly a mangled extremity.” The best-case scenario, Mullis concluded? John would walk again, but not for a year or two, and certainly not like the rest of us. Worst case? Says Mullis: “That he never woke up.”
The alternative carried with it far more risk, and promised a far more taxing recovery. Mullis would piece the bones back together and reattach the severed ankles to John’s two stumps. It came with no guarantees. If they didn’t heal properly, John would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Mullis had two options: amputate John’s legs or try to salvage what little was left - and hope for a miracle. With prosthetics, there was a good chance John would be able to walk again, perhaps even run. That and he’d get out of the hospital sooner. All it would take was a few snips.
John chose his legs.
“If a person can undo himself, he can redo himself, right?” he says now, smiling as he always does.
What followed: 11 surgeries over the next two months, including nine in the first 14 days. Thousands of staples and sutures. Mullis slowly and meticulously rebuilt John’s lower legs. He took ankle joints that “were in dozens of pieces,” Mullis recalls, and secured them with titanium screws. John spent seven weeks in the hospital.
His marriage ended. He sold the log cabin. He needed the money. And he needed somewhere to live, somewhere with an elevator so he could get up and down in his wheelchair. He looked for an apartment in his price range but came up empty-handed. He figured he was out of luck. Then, one day, an old friend saved him from the streets.
“John, you can live down here,” Liz Glover told him.
Liz owned Charlie Brown’s. There was a bedroom downstairs, a bathroom and - most important - an elevator up to the first floor. It’s all John needed. It became home. It saved him.
The first bill John received after the accident wasn’t from the hospital. It was from the city of Indianapolis, seeking $800 for the guard rail his Bravada had smashed into. Can this guy ever catch a break?
“All you can do is laugh about that,” he says.
A year after the accident, John rose from his wheelchair for the first time. No cane, no crutches. To this day, he calls it one of the best moments of his life.
He knows the rehabilitation will never stop, that the lower half of his body will never be the same. But after five years of physical therapy, John’s made progress that astonishes even his doctors. A regular stop is the office of David Graston, whose revolutionary Graston Technique breaks up the scar tissue that has formed beneath the skin of John’s ankles. The first time they met, Graston remembers, John’s ankles “were twice the size they are now. We’re talking as big as melons.”
No more. John went from standing to walking on a treadmill to walking with a cane to walking on his own. He tried to run. Made it a few steps. Then he tried the entire street. Then around the block. Soon enough he was jogging two miles every morning with a new running buddy, a German Shepherd named Zeke. He wanted more, so he signed up for the Mini-Marathon.
“I missed the freedom of running,” he explains. “I remember jogging for the first time since the accident, and it was like a breath of fresh air. It made me feel . oh my goodness . like I can do this again!”
Can he really make it 13.1 miles on two ankles that were once sawdust? Can he really do this? He’s not sure. But he wants to find out.
Mullis has worked at Wishard (now Eskenazi Hospital) as a trauma surgeon for a decade. He counts John as one of his favorite all-time patients.
“Six years ago if you’d have told me he was going to one day run a mini-marathon, I’d have said ‘No way, no way,’ ” Mullis says. “Our goal was just to get him to walk again.”
How does someone respond when life is flipped on its end? John Miller climbed from his hole and started running again.
“The miracle isn’t that he’s running this race, it’s that even tried to run in the first place,” says Bob Pascuzzi, Chairman of Neurology at the IU School of Medicine and a friend of John’s for 20 years. “As doctors and researchers, we think we teach people things. In John’s case, he’s the one teaching us.
“Even in the darkest times, when the shock and depression hits you, he never felt bad for himself. He never said, ‘Why me?’ His attitude, in my opinion, played a huge role in his recovery. I can’t tell you exactly how, but I know it did.”
That attitude, that perpetual positivity - is that the secret? Mullis thinks so. Pascuzzi thinks so. Both believe John isn’t where he is - ready to run 13.1 miles Saturday morning - without it.
Sitting in Charlie Brown’s one morning, sipping a cup of coffee, John retraces the past six years. The ups, the downs, the darkness and the light. He thinks of Saturday and what it means.
He won’t win the race, and he’s not even sure how it’ll play out. He hasn’t made it 10 miles since the accident. All he knows is why he’s doing it: for the doctors who saved him, for the friends who supported him, for anyone whose world was flipped on its end and, in an instant, finds themselves staring at rock bottom.
“Why am I running this race?” he says, smiling as he always does.
“Because I can.”
Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/26XUKiS
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.