TARBORO – Ten years ago, the Miller family’s life changed forever.
The ordeal began shortly after midnight Aug. 27, 2004, when Beth Miller, a new pre-kindergarten teacher in the New Hanover County school system, was involved in a serious automobile crash.
The wreck not only totaled the vehicle, it had virtually the same result on the driver.
As emergency personnel tended to a battered, bloodied and unconscious victim, law enforcement began searching the wreckage for driver’s identification.
When an ID finally was located – via a mangled auto registration – an entirely new search began as officials sought next of kin.
Every Miller in the Wilmington telephone book was called. No one was related to the victim.
Then the uniqueness of the driver’s middle name – Madry – was noticed. It had to be a surname, officials surmised. Back to the phone book, where two Madrys were listed.
The next call yielded results. Although not the next of kin, the voice on the other end belonged to a first cousin of the driver’s mother.
“You need to call Tom and Patsy Miller in Tarboro,” officials were informed.
Startled from sleep as the phone rang at 3:30 a.m., Tom Miller was shocked to hear his daughter had been critically injured in the wreck.
As he tried to grasp the situation, the phone rang again – this time it was a hospital seeking permission to perform emergency surgery to save his daughter’s life after she had suffered severe head injuries.
Miller and wife Patsy were en route to Wilmington when surgery began at 5:30 a.m. Arriving at 7:30, they were informed their daughter had suffered traumatic brain injuries and nerve damage as a result of cranium fractures.
They could do little more than pace and worry until surgery was completed at 10:30. Then came the double-edged sword as they met with the surgeon.
“He said there was good news and bad news,” Tom Miller said. “The good news was the surgery was a success. They had been able to remove the hematoma on Beth’s brain and her cranium had fit back together.
“The bad news was she was still asleep. He said, ‘When she wakes up, she could be just like her old self or she could never wake up.’”
Sitting in that hospital waiting room during surgery was nothing compared to what followed for the Millers.
Beth spent the next 12 days in intensive care and the next three months in a coma.
While rightfully relieved when their daughter finally opened her eyes, the Beth who lay in that hospital bed was far from the “old self” Tom and Patsy knew.
That is when Beth’s ordeal began.
“After I came out of the coma, I had to learn to do everything again – eat, drink, walk, go to the bathroom, take a bath, go upstairs – everything,” Beth said last week while sitting with her parents and nurse Geraldine Knight on the front porch of their Tarboro home.
On top of that, there have been a total of eight surgeries and seemingly endless hours of an array of therapies – occupational, physical, recreational and psychological – as Beth traversed the long, slow path of recovery.
As their daughter was fighting her battle, Tom and Patsy were embroiled in ones of their own.
“You couldn’t look at things in the long term, or even the short-term,” said Tom, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. “We had to take it a day, a half-day and even an hour at a time.”
Tom’s plight notwithstanding, Patsy perhaps had it worse as one expects a mother would being placed in the situation of witnessing an offspring in such a life-or-death situation.
In fact, Patsy readily admits that surviving those initial months required somewhat of an emotional disconnect.
“When I would see her early on after the accident, I wondered how we’d be able to get her back,” she said. “Progress was so slow at times, and it was excruciating.
“From an emotional standpoint, I had to look at her as just someone who needed my help and not necessarily my daughter. When I was able to do that, it eased a lot of the stress and emotional distress.”
Yet, through the tears, frustration, pain and frayed emotions, Tom, Patsy – and most importantly, Beth – kept fighting and maintained focus on ultimate goals.
“There were lots of time when physical therapy was painful and I wanted to quit,” Beth said. “But I was determined to get back where I used to be. I wanted to get back to my family.”
While memories are the lasting effects for all three, Beth has physical limitations she will never shake – most notably a head-to-toe partial paralysis on the right side of her body.
However, aside from that, Beth shows virtually no effects from the brain injuries suffered and continues to have a dogged determination about her future.
“I’ve had to learn to become left-handed, but there are only three things now I can’t do – run, jump and drive,” Beth said. “I know I’ll never run or jump again, but driving...that’s something we’ll see about.”
In fact, both of Beth’s surgeons in those critical hours immediately following her accident credit the young woman’s “grit and determination” with the recovery she’s made.
Beth was aware neither of them could keep track of her because of HIPPA laws, but she could “track them down.”
As she told both when they finally met again in 2010, she wanted to meet them and “say thank you for my life.”
With life far from over, Beth, now 38, has definite plans for her future – in addition to sometime getting back behind the wheel – because she knows “God kept me here for a reason.”
A member of Tarboro Women’s Club, she is an active volunteer at the hospital and continues working with children.
In addition, she recently auditioned and was accepted as a member of the choir at Calvary Episcopal Church and has an ultimate goal of becoming a wife and a mother.
With what has happened over the past 10 years, Tom and Patsy – who join doctors in quickly admitting Beth’s determination has been the foundation of her recovery – have no doubt their daughter will accomplish anything to which she sets her mind.
Somewhat embarrassed by the praise, Beth does not hesitate to let anyone know the real source that has brought her back.
“Despite the therapy, medication and my own grit and determination, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without the love and support of my parents,” she said, stepping across the porch to wrap both mom then dad in an embrace. “They have given me life twice.”