Bill Miller’s Interrupted Life Changed His Mind About Quadriplegia

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On the worst night of his life, Bill Miller of Leesburg was 20, studying math at the University of Florida and celebrating the last weekend before the start of his senior year.

He’d invited a few friends over to his apartment, bid farewell to summer with way too much booze, and gone to his upstairs bedroom to sleep. At one point, he got up, tripped over an Ab-Roller in the dark, and landed awkwardly. His housemates found him on the floor, assumed he had passed out, and carried him back to bed.

Turns out Miller had broken his neck. And for a few hours of youthful indiscretion, he became a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator to help him breathe.

He spent the next 25 years being able to move little more than his mouth and eyes.

You might consider Miller, who died in March, as disastrous bad luck. But as her family prepares to celebrate her life, her international impact, and the release of her unfinished book, they see something else entirely.

“In the beginning, my job was to keep his mind active and give him things to look forward to,” says his mother-in-law, Donna Miller, a retired Lake County judge. “But after the first five years, I didn’t need to do that anymore. He made his own life exciting.

Long before Alexa and Siri, Miller would teach himself how to operate a voice-activated computer system and program it to turn on lights, adjust TV volume, adjust the thermostat, or play a list of songs.

Although he never considered himself a writer, he became a film critic for the local newspaper. In the early days of distance college learning, he returned to UF Online for a Bachelor of Commerce, and a few years later earned a Masters in Entrepreneurship from Western Carolina University, where he eventually became an assistant. of teaching.

And on a deeper level for the larger community of fellow quadriplegics – faced with valuable options for participatory sports – he and a friend would develop a system that allowed them to play bowling, directing the ball with the angle of their electric wheelchairs and of their mouthpieces. to adjust the speed of the chair and time when the ball is released.

For those whose power to control their environment is so extremely limited, the sweet cacophony of knocking down pins in a bowling alley is nothing short of miraculous.

“It should be illegal, it’s so much fun,” Michelle Hlavek Carston said when she first tried it in 2003. Carston, who died in 2020, was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident at the age of 23. She and half a dozen or more others would become regulars over the years at Spanish Springs Bowling Alley in The Villages, the sprawling retirement community.

They were called “The Quad Squad” and they were seriously competitive. Miller’s best score was 255, a quadriplegic record.

Miller was still a baby when his father, Jim Miller, divorced and moved from Chicago to Florida. He was a quieter kid than his big brother, Andy, and studious, but he enjoyed baseball, soccer, and football, playing in recreational leagues.

“For a long time we practically lived with my father,” says Andy Miller, now 48, who has helped care for his brother for the past few years. “You know, we were close. It was three guys and a lot of sport.

The morning after the crash, the family rushed to what is now UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville for the month-long hospitalization, surgery and rehabilitation. When a doctor explained the extent of the injury, Jim Miller passed out.

The brothers, however, were stoic. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry,” says Andy Miller. “But Bill – he was amazing.”

There was deep grief, of course. Doctors prescribed a series of antidepressants at first. But one night when he was battling double pneumonia, when doctors didn’t know if he would survive, Bill Miller said he had made the choice to live.

“I clearly remember thinking that I just wanted all the struggles, all the problems, to get it all over,” he would write years later. “I wanted…to be healed again.”

At that moment, he wrote, he saw what he believed to be an angel come to him. If he wanted to, the angel said, he could just stop breathing and the pain would stop. But if he wanted to live, he had to impose himself.

Miller had not been particularly religious before his accident, although he considered himself a Christian. But then his faith defined him. It gave him patience, perspective, purpose.

“He was the sweetest, kindest soul,” says Donna Miller’s sister, Wanda Fishalow. “He was an inspiration to me – and almost everyone who met him – to not let the world defeat you.”

He started a blog, lookmomnohands.net, which attracted a global audience, sharing practical advice for quadriplegics, personal updates from the Quad Squad and large doses of encouragement and compassion. He also sent out a newsletter to hundreds of valid and invalid admirers.

“I’m writing a book called ‘Life Can Still Be Good – Despite Difficult Challenges’, which is a memoir and more,” he announced in February. “I started writing it at the start of the pandemic, thinking I really wanted to get my thoughts across before COVID-19, or something else, ended my life on earth and sent me to heaven. . August 23, 2022 will be the 25th anniversary of the day I became paralyzed, and it’s the day I plan to release my book – one way or another. I try not to take anything for granted and realize that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

Donna Miller thinks it was prescient.

One Monday evening in mid-March, Bill Miller told his father that he was having trouble concentrating enough to read. Jim Miller slept in his son’s room so someone would always be within earshot in case the fan malfunctioned or clogged catheter. Jim Miller didn’t think too much about what momentarily felt like a lack of concentration.

But the next night, her son couldn’t read at all. He couldn’t make out the words. And the next morning, he had trouble speaking.

Jim Miller took him to the emergency room, where technicians performed various tests and analyses.

“There’s a huge mass in his brain,” Jim Miller recalled, telling a doctor. “We can do a biopsy, but I’m sure it’s cancer. He has days or weeks – maybe a month – left to live.

Bill Miller had conquered and accomplished so much. He had given inspirational talks at homeless shelters, civic groups and schools. He had sensitized caregivers and health workers to the needs of quadriplegic patients. And he had helped countless quadriplegics themselves to realize that they were more powerful than themselves or the rest of the world thought. Although his IKAN Bowler was never mass-produced, approximately 1,000 of them were sold to users in the United States and overseas.

But brain cancer? Of all the afflictions, infections, complications and vulnerabilities that threaten to shorten the lifespan of quadriplegics, this was not one of them.

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Bill Miller was awake and attentive to the news. “I’m not worried,” he said calmly.

Doctors ordered high doses of steroids to relieve the pressure inside his head and sent him home to die.

For four days, Miller mobilized, entertaining a parade of visitors who came to say goodbye.

“We heard more laughter coming from this room…” says Jim Miller.

In the early morning of March 22, Bill Miller died in his sleep. He was 45 years old.

A few feet from his bed, hung on the wall by his computer, was a sign he had hung years ago: “This is what it is,” she said. “But it will be what you make of it.”

ksantich@orlandosentinel.com

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