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Rebounding, to race again

Matt Miller, training for a triathlon, had broken every bone in his face and suffered brain injury on Nov. 2, when he lost control of his bike and smashed, face-first, into a car going 40 miles an hour. He was determined to resume his life where he'd left off - even completing his fall semester as a junior at the University of Virginia.

Matt Miller hugs Emily Privette after his recovery from a cycling crash. “It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of family and friends,” he said. (John Costello / Staff Photographer)
Matt Miller hugs Emily Privette after his recovery from a cycling crash. “It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of family and friends,” he said. (John Costello / Staff Photographer)Read more

Last of three parts.

Matt Miller was determined to resume his life where he'd left off - even completing his fall semester as a junior at the University of Virginia.

Matt left the hospital Nov. 26, sooner than anyone had expected, and a few days later scheduled a physics midterm for Dec. 8.

The 20-year-old from St. Davids, training for a triathlon, had broken every bone in his face and suffered brain injury on Nov. 2, when he lost control of his bike and smashed, face-first, into a car going 40 miles an hour.

Three days before the physics test, Matt had a follow-up appointment with J. Forrest Calland, the trauma surgeon in charge of his care at the University of Virginia Medical Center.

"By definition, there's no way Matt can have 100 percent of his mental capacity back," Calland told Matt and his father. "My gut's telling me this is not a good idea."

Matt still had a tracheostomy in his throat and his jaw was wired shut. He desperately wanted to argue his case but couldn't speak.

His father, Mike Miller, was vehemently against his taking the test. Matt was premed, with all A's in sciences. Why rush? Why risk a bad grade?

Matt took his Physics 201 midterm - 20 problems on harmonic motion, waves and sound, fluids, and thermodynamics.

The decision did not surprise his longtime girlfriend from Radnor High, Emily Privette.

"He seems to single-mindedly pursue his goals with the belief that he is in control of his own destiny. And, to achieve them, all that is required is that he always give his best," she said.

A few days later, his professor, Hung Q. Pham, sent this e-mail:

"Matt, your midterm grade is 19/20. Congratulations."

Three students out of 184 in the class had scored higher.

"For him to do that well after the accident . . . blew my mind," Pham said.

"Surviving brain injury, getting out of the hospital rapidly, that's one thing," said Calland, hearing the score. "But actually learning physics while recovering from brain injury, this part dumbfounds me."

A thank-you visit

On Saturday, Dec. 13, Mike Miller wanted to visit the man who had saved his son on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Matt had been training for a triathlon, on an 85-mile ride, at the time of the accident.

A passing motorist just happened to be Mark Harris, an anesthesiologist who'd graduated from Temple University Medical School and knew how to get Matt breathing again.

Mike Miller had called to thank him. Now he wanted to do so in person.

"I'm in," said Matt's mother.

"I want to go," wrote Matt.

So they drove from the family's vacation home in Wintergreen, Va., where Matt had been recovering, to the doctor's home in Charlottesville.

Tears were streaming before words.

Harris looked at Matt on his front step and said, "I'm having a hard time believing what I'm seeing."

Matt tapped his heart, and gave the doctor a bear hug.

His face was still swollen, and nerve damage made it difficult to smile.

But the last time Harris had seen him, sprawled on the road, the doctor had doubted Matt would make it to the hospital.

Soon Harris and his wife, Mary Ann, a graduate of La Salle University, were recounting everything that had happened that autumn morning.

Matt peppered the Harrises with notes, questions.

At one point, the 60-year-old doctor got down on the floor, lying on his back, arms and feet clenched and extended, showing the position in which he'd found Matt, indicating brain injury.

He got back on the floor, moments later, demonstrating the wrestling-style scissors hold in which Harris had used his own legs to keep Matt from jumping up and running away in a fight-or-flight reaction.

Mary Ann Harris, who had held Matt's hand as her husband worked over him, had wanted to go to the hospital to comfort the cyclist's mother. But Nancy Miller would have had no idea who she was.

After two hours, Matt posed with the Harrises for photos.

Forbidden from speaking, Matt broke the rule.

"Thank you," he garbled through his wired jaw.

Words of gratitude

Matt made it his mission to thank everyone who sent a card, phoned, or visited.

On Dec. 19, home in St. Davids for Christmas, he wrote to Stephen Park and Jared Christophel, the doctors who had rebuilt his face that first day, starting by lining up the few broken teeth left in his mouth.

"I just wanted to thank you again for all you have done. . . . This will sound silly because I am only a third-year college student, but if there is ever anything I can do in any way to help either of you. . . ."

On Dec. 29, Matt scratched out a one-page letter to his parents and brother:

"The three of you have been incredible these last 8 weeks. . . . The doctors physically stabilized me, but you all healed me. I thank God multiple times a day for blessing me with such a strong family - Emily included - who I love more than anyone loves anything in the world."

Two nights later, he e-mailed Merrily Stilwell, 61, a receptionist who worked with Matt's father at Vanguard. She'd sent Matt a ceramic butterfly inscribed, "With a little bit of faith, Big Miracles can happen."

Stilwell, who has multiple sclerosis, had fired a therapist who told her she'd never walk - then proved him wrong.

Saying he was bringing the butterfly back to school, Matt wrote, "There is a hook in my ceiling above my bed where the butterfly will hang and watch over me and remind me of how blessed I am. . . ."

Matt finished his fall semester with straight A's.

By year end, his facial nerve had started to come back. "From then on," he said, "every day I would pucker my lips just to see the increase in motion that I had gained!"

On Jan. 13, when Park was certain Matt would need no more surgeries, Matt pulled out his own trache tube in Park's office.

Mark Bernardino, who had coached Matt when he was on the University of Virginia swim team and coached him back to fitness in the hospital, worried that Matt would fear swimming after his tracheostomy. He insisted that Matt return to the pool as soon as the hole in his throat had healed.

On Jan. 30, Bernardino cleared a lane and, naturally, put a stopwatch on Matt. Pushing off, Matt swam a 100-yard freestyle in 59 seconds. For a college swimmer, this is unremarkable. But for a young man who wasn't even sure his airway would work properly, this was a triumph.

In February, Emily took Matt out to dinner to celebrate his 21st birthday, and by the end of the month he got the OK to get back on a bike.

"His face is strong, maybe stronger," Park said. "It's reinforced with titanium plates. Once it heals, it's rock solid."

Matt always planned to ride his bike again, but he decided he'd ride only on bike trails and in competitions where roads were closed to cars.

He made this decision not because he was afraid.

"If I remembered the accident," he said, "I'd probably never want to get back on the bike. But I have no recollection. None."

Matt's concern was causing pain to loved ones. "I never, ever again want to put them through what they went through," he said.

One day during spring break, Matt rode the 2.5-mile Radnor Trail four times. He felt only joy, back on his bike.

A few weeks later, Matt told his story to 300 students from third to eighth grade at a private school in Virginia where his uncle is a teacher.

Matt spent hours thinking about what he wanted to say.

Before the accident, he told them, "I pretty much thought that I was invincible and unstoppable."

He urged the students to wear a helmet, which had saved his life, and to take care of their bodies. His conditioning had speeded his recovery.

He emphasized the strength he drew from those around him:

"Honesty, hard work, going out of your way for others, doing the right thing at the right time, these are what will build strong relationships with others. And these relationships will not only bring you happiness every single day, but they will help save your life when you need them the most. It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of family and friends."

He encouraged the students to create a vision for their lives and work tirelessly toward it.

"We cannot decide what happens to us, but we can decide what happens in us," he said. "How we take the raw stuff of life and make it a thing of beauty. That is the test of living."

A new helmet

Matt took three classes in the spring semester and finished with all A's, more determined than ever to be "the best doctor I can possibly become."

On June 6, he rode competitively for the first time since his accident - an eight-mile time trial from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Falls Bridge and back.

His family came to support him. Matt's mother and girlfriend were anxious, "but this is important to Matt," his mother said.

The only visible concession to his accident was his full-faced orange helmet, worn by downhill mountain-bike racers who often crash face-first.

"I get a lot of weird looks," Matt said before the start, "but I could care less."

He finished ninth out of 40.

"It's great to see you back," his father said.

Matt will compete at 8 a.m. Saturday in the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon sprint race along Martin Luther King Drive.

Dental work

When Park rebuilt Matt's face, the surgeon tried to make him look "normal, natural, and symmetrical." But Matt will never look exactly the same as he did before the accident.

Park also said Matt could suffer joint pain in his reconstructed jaw as he grew older.

Matt still has two years of dental work ahead, including bone grafts, gum surgery, and implants, being done by area dentists Alan Meltzer and Bruce Singer.

He's had a dozen root canals on his remaining teeth.

On June 10, Matt went to Singer in Jenkintown to get temporary dentures. This would be the first time since the accident that Matt had teeth.

After 90 minutes, the dentist handed him a mirror.

"Wow," Matt said, softly.

He was quiet for several seconds, just taking it all in. Finally, he said:

"That's a smile."

Read the first two installments of the story of Matt Miller's fight to reclaim his life at http://philly.comEndText