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Wave broke Modestan's neck, 'miracles' put him back on his feet

The fog had burned off, the sand at Pismo Beach was beginning to sizzle and Modesto Realtor Fred Miller finally was hot enough to join his teenage daughters in the surf.

It was July 25, 2007, the second day in the family's annual weeklong pilgrimage to Pismo, a trip they had been taking for nearly 20 years. Miller's wife, Leanne, stayed on the beach while Miller and his brother-in-law, Phil Morino of Modesto, took their boogie boards into the ocean. Two of the Millers' daughters, Natalie and Jacqueline, then 17 and 19, had been surfing for a few hours.

"The waves looked interesting in that they were larger and thicker than normal," said Miller, who lived near the ocean for about half of his

61 years. "We had heard it was because of a storm down south.

"I went out about 80 yards. It gets deep very gradually, and I was in water about shoulder deep. I caught my first wave and had a great ride for about 60 yards. I went back out. I realized I was farther out than the surfers and other boogie boards, bobbing up and down in my black wet suit. I began thinking, if any great whites (sharks) come in here, which they do, I'm going to be the first thing they see.

"So I had just moved in closer to shore about 20 yards, but was still one of the farthest out. I see a big wave I'd been waiting for. It looked big and strong and almost caught up with the wave in front of it. I made a point to catch it, and I thought everyone else would, too.

"I caught the wave as it started breaking and it picked me up very nicely, but unfortunately, it just rolled me around. I was coming down fast, but I had no concern. I never dreamed I would ever reach the bottom, nor did I ever dream I would slam into the ocean floor."

The wave drove him head first into the hard, wet sand. Miller said it felt as if someone had sneaked up behind him and hit him with a baseball bat.

It surprised but didn't worry him.

"I've been boogie boarding for more than 35 years," he said. "I was thinking, 'Wow, I don't know if I want to go catch another wave or go lay on the beach for a little while before I come back in.' "

He let the wave take him along underwater, knowing it would soon let up.

"I was simply going to stand up and see how I felt," he said. "I went to move, and I was paralyzed. It absolutely stunned me. One second, you're on top of the wave having fun, and the next instant, you're paralyzed underwater."

He didn't panic, but said he did a quick assessment -- who was closest to him and who might see him. One daughter was about 30 yards away but had her back to him. His brother-in-law was about 40 yards away, but should have caught the wave.

"If he caught that wave, I knew I was in deep trouble," Miller said. "I tried to move again and couldn't. I knew I was in far deeper trouble than I ever dreamed. My breath was low, I was alone and in dire straits. My options were to hold my breath and pray that someone would get to me, or somehow move, or, thirdly, to think of something else I could do to help myself."

He managed to roll on his back, "praying I would float to the surface, take a breath and yell for help. I got teasingly close, where that foam was, then another wave would come and just bury me."

He rolled back on his stomach and thought perhaps the waves would push him into shallow enough water so he could roll over again, or be seen.

"I was going to give it every ounce I could to hold my breath. My only real hope was of my brother-in-law or my daughter seeing me. My biggest prayer was, 'Please, Phil, don't have caught that wave.' Those last seconds, it was clearly me and death, but I wasn't giving up. My last thought was, 'This is how I'm going to die.' "

He doesn't remember passing out, but he did.

"The next thing I know, I was looking at a clear blue sky. I had no idea how I'd gotten there, and I honestly believed I had died. I thought I had crossed the line into death and I was maybe in heaven. Then three faces popped over me; I had never seen any one of them. I kind of wondered, who were these people? I thought they were judging me, at first.

"One of them said, 'Can you move anything?' As soon as he said that, I heard the waves break. A flush came over me and I thought, 'My God, I'm alive. What happened?' "

'Everyone started screaming'

His daughter Jacqueline and Morino had seen him about the same time.

"I heard my uncle yelling for help. I turned around and my dad was floating facedown in the water," Jacqueline said. "We started yelling, but no one heard us. We swam him in. It took so long because he was so heavy with the wet suit. We were trying to keep his head above the water, but I didn't think he was breathing. Everyone started screaming hysterically."

Including Miller's wife, Leanne.

"I heard hollering out in the water, but the sun was kind of low in the sky and everyone looks about the same. The second time, I knew something was wrong, and I immediately focused on my brother. He and my daughter were pulling a body out of the water. It was Fred.

"I jumped in the water to help them bring him in. I thought he was dead. His lips were blue. His skin was pasty-looking. His eyes were open but glazed over. There was foam on his lips; I thought it was from a convulsion, but it was foam from the ocean.

"I was yelling, 'Somebody's got to do CPR.' Luckily, nobody did. If anyone had done it, he would be a quadriplegic today."

Miller was unconscious and not breathing. Then, in one of what he calls a series of miracles, a doctor happened to be jogging past and stopped to help. He gently turned Miller on his side and tapped his back; water poured out of his mouth and lungs, Leanne said. A nurse walking on the beach appeared next and found a pulse in his ankle. Alerted by a 911 call, paramedics arrived. They stabilized his neck and gave him oxygen in the ambulance to help with his labored breathing. Theirs were the first faces Miller saw.

When Miller arrived at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, his temperature was 91 degrees. Even that was helpful, he learned later. The cold controlled swelling around the spinal cord. Doctors found he had a broken neck and sent him by ambulance to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, about 20 minutes away.

The next day, he had surgery to fuse two vertebrae, insert a rod and remove a tiny piece of bone snuggled up against his spinal cord. Dr. Phillip Kissel, a neurosurgeon, was leaving the next day for three weeks in Peru. Miller counts the timing -- that the doctor was still there -- among his "small miracles."

Another was what Kissel told him the next day.

"He said, 'Fred, if you were a younger man, 15 or 20 years ago, you would have been a quadriplegic,' " Miller recalled. "I thought that was a strange thing to say. He said when he did the surgery, some arthritis had fused some of the vertebrae he was operating on. So when I took that blow to the top of my head, the arthritis that I've never felt strengthened my vertebrae column to withstand that blow.

"It was kind of a miracle that the spinal cord didn't sever anyway. The bone that broke should have severed it. How lucky is that? The natural demise of my own body saved me from a more damaging injury."

The next day, Miller could very slightly move one toe and some fingers, a hopeful sign. But the big question remained: Would Miller ever walk again? For the next few weeks, doctors and nurses told the family they simply didn't know the answer.

After about nine days in the intensive care unit, Miller was transferred again, this time to Santa Clara Valley Medical Hospital, which specializes in spinal cord rehabilitation.

"I could wriggle my right foot, which was a glorious realization," Miller said. "That gave me hope that I would never be totally paralyzed.

"At one point, I dragged my hand across my chest to my buttons and said, 'Look, I can move my fingers.' No one had the heart to tell me my fingers weren't moving -- it was just my hand."

Improvement comes slowly

His mobility came back in baby steps, he said.

"I was told not to look for improvement in days, but in weeks or even months," Miller said. "I was in all kinds of occupational therapy, physical therapy. It was a very slow thing."

Between exercises, he spent time visiting with other patients. A year later, he still gets choked up when he talks about those who didn't have his success.

"I was the only spinal cord patient in the hospital at that time who walked out on my own power," he said. "Much of that was blind luck, and part of it was just a lot of physical work. I'm extremely grateful for my struggle, to have the opportunity to work hard and gain some results, because a lot of people I was with don't have that.

"What was amazing to me was how many young kids are in this hospital with spinal cord injuries who aren't moving much of anything and don't have the upside I do. Two boys were 16 and 18 from Northern California. I called us the North Coast boys. Those kids are in shock. They've lost their lives. So when you've lived three-fourths of your life and they've lived one-quarter, I can sure understand survivor's guilt and what some of our soldiers feel.

"I'm in the fraternity of wheelchair people. There's a lot of admirable strength I saw in a lot of people who have no medical reason to hope they'll walk again and are facing their life with dignity and strength."

Miller said that during the third week at the rehab hospital, "I made tremendous progress. My strength was coming back; my balance was better. I had a miraculous recovery. Nurses who had been there for 10 years said they'd never seen anything like it."

Told he would stay in the rehab unit for at least six weeks and go home in a wheelchair, Miller was released in three and a half weeks, a little more than six weeks after he broke his neck.

"I thought I'd be in a wheelchair around the house, or at least using a walker," Miller said.

Instead, he was walking without aid, although going up and down steps was a problem for months. He said he's at about "90 percent" of his pre-accident ability. He isn't playing his weekly basketball games, but is golfing and doing most other things.

He's back at work with Stepping Stone Group in Modesto, where he specializes in commercial property and land sales. After two decades with Lapata Realty, Miller had been with Stepping Stone for just two weeks before his accident. He said he's grateful to his boss for sticking with him until he could return to work.

And he has learned a bunch of lessons from his near-fatal accident.

"Mortality is right in front of my nose," Miller said. "I'm looking at the balance of my life differently.

"Through bad habits, I had used the Lord's name in vain, which I've promised never to do again. And I've learned not to put off telling people when I love or appreciate them, to be more affirmative with people and not taking little things so seriously."

He also has stopped his previous focus on building wealth and wants to produce just enough money for retirement and helping others.

"You hear about so many people working until they retire and then having some kind of debilitating stroke or heart attack," he said. "I want to balance my life with an exercise routine and travel, make more time for reading and other hobbies. At some point, I'd like to give back to the less fortunate. There's other rewards in life than cash flow and equity. I could see myself maybe one day helping at an orphanage in Africa."

It's not that Miller is a stranger to giving back. He began The Realtor Review in 2001, an annual concert by local entertainers at the State Theatre that raises money for community housing and shelter programs for homeless families. The September show has raised about $10,000 a year.

Last year at the event, held less than two weeks after Miller returned home, "I came out with a boogie board and a neck brace," he said. It brought cheers and applause.

But the Miller family isn't quite ready to bring the curtain down on the terrifying experience. Leanne Miller recently canceled their trip to Pismo this year, which the family books two years in advance.

"They didn't want to face the ocean again," Miller said. "I'm fine with it. I would go back in. It wasn't the ocean's fault. But I didn't go through the near death of a family member, either."

Cautious, terrified and grateful

Besides Miller's scar, there's another reminder of the accident -- the family dog is named Pismo. The Millers really don't need reminders, though; they've learned their lessons and are facing their fears.

"We all walked down to the beach one day like we've been doing for 19 years. In a minute, everything changed," said Leanne Miller. "You need to completely acknowledge the people you love. They can be gone in a flash."

She said she tries not to take small things, like walking, for granted anymore. And the experience "has brought me closer to my faith. It's all in God's hands."

But there have been some negatives, too, after seeing her husband's brush with death.

"I'm more nervous about my three daughters and what they're doing," she said. "One said, 'Every decision you make can't be because of Dad's accident.' I said, 'Yes, but I know now that things can happen to other people.'

"I feel some of my security has been taken from me. I don't know that I'll ever feel again that everything will be fine."

Nichelle, the Millers' oldest daughter, lives in New York. She flew out after the accident and "held my hand for a solid week," Fred Miller said. Earlier this month, she gave birth to the Millers' first grandchild, a treasure no one in the family takes for granted.

Jacqueline's life also has changed. "I can't even describe the terror I felt when I was bringing (my dad) in," she said. "Even seeing my mom become hysterical was really horrible, too. ... It took months before we realized he would have a normal life back."

It's led her to two different emotions.

"It's made me terrified now," Jacqueline said. "You're living a completely normal life and then everything does a 180 and you're in a nightmare. I'm almost scared that something can happen again to a family member. It kind of made me scared of death a little bit."

A counselor has helped with her fears and nightmares. But there is a more positive impact, too.

"It's made me extremely grateful," Jacqueline said. "As a teenager, we really do take our parents for granted. Before the accident, it would be all my friends, my friends, my friends, and I wouldn't be around the house much. Now, it's made us all closer as a family."

As for her dad, he'd like to find the doctor who stopped to help.

"I've never known that gentleman's name or who he is," Miller said. "I'd like to know that and thank him. He may have saved me from paralysis."

And he's grateful for the recovery he's made.

"I don't have the strength or endurance that I had, but it's coming back. I still have daylight ahead of me. I'm grateful for that, and for the Lord to give me a chance, and for my brother-in-law and daughter getting to me in time."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or 578-2012.

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