By Pete Williams
Matt Miller had no business surviving a bicycle accident in November 2008. The 20-year-old University of Virginia student and triathlete collided with an oncoming Porsche along the Blue Ridge Parkway, smashing into the vehicle with his face.
He broke every bone in his face, essentially lost all of his teeth, and experienced severe brain trauma. Remarkably, the first person on the scene was an anesthesiologist, who knew how to position his head. That was the first of a series of fortunate circumstances that got him alive to the University of Virginia hospital, where doctors gave him little chance of surviving 72 hours, at least without permanent brain damage.
Instead, Miller walked out of the hospital in 25 days, scored a 95 on a makeup physics exam with a class average of 65, and two years later completed Ironman Cozumel in a top 10 percent time of 10:30 — during his first semester of medical school, no less.
As an undergraduate, he shadowed a doctor at the University of Virginia hospital. His family’s medical background goes back to his maternal great, great grandfather, a Civil War surgeon and Virginia graduate.
If Matt Miller’s story was a work of fiction, it would seem too farfetched. That might explain why Michael Vitez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who chronicled Miller’s recovery for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was rejected by fifteen New York book publishers who no doubt are waiting for the next Kardashian book proposal.
Thankfully, Vitez decided to self-publish the book via CreateSpace.com and the result, The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit, is an adrenaline-charged book that I read in one sitting after downloading Monday morning. Vitez won a Pulitzer for a series of stories on five people as they dealt with the end of their lives. He also wrote a book called Rocky stories, spending a year interviewing people who ran the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Those themes resonate in The Road Back, where Miller’s family spends three agonizing days wondering if he’s going to make it. Miller even has a shy, pretty girlfriend, Emily, who for weeks spends nights at his hospital bedside even as his face is mangled far beyond anything Rocky endured. (The two are still together, fellow medical students at the University of Pennsylvania, and, well, we won’t spoil the ending.)
Miller, a walk-on swimmer at the University of Virginia who quit the team after one year to focus on triathlon, showed a superhuman tolerance for pain and proving medical experts wrong. He was studying his physics texts in bed within days of emerging from major brain trauma. He found a way to consume nearly 4,000 calories a day with his jaw wired shut and underwent eight root canals in one day with minimal painkillers. While still in the hospital, he got his former swim coach Mark Bernardino’s calves burning as they walked stairwells together.
Vitez, a University of Virginia graduate who in the late 1970s edited a Cavalier Daily student newspaper staff that included classmate Katie Couric, learned of Miller’s story early in 2009 while playing poker with a co-worker of Miller’s father. A gifted storyteller, Vitez soon was in Charlottesville chronicling Miller’s recovery and marveling like everyone else at his upbeat personality.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book is when someone finally handed Miller a mirror in the hospital. He just shrugged at the sight of his disfigured face that would require many more surgeries.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Vitez, who joined us on The Fitness Buff Show. “I sent a draft of the book to my agent and she sent it back. She didn’t believe it and told me to go back and talk to him some more. She thought there must have been a point where he was devastated and I wasn’t going deep enough. And I went back and asked again and again, but I found that Matt felt that as long as his girlfriend was with him and that there was no hesitation on her part, that he was fine. He said, ‘I’m a vain guy. I used to be upset about a pimple on my face. It’s not that I don’t care how I look, but I’m up thinking and walking, living my life, and Emily was still in love with me and the rest didn’t matter.'”
Three months after the accident, Miller jumped into a pool for the first time, swam a 100 free in 59 seconds, and vowed to do an Ironman triathlon. He started with the Charlottesville Half Marathon, posting a 1:27:28 – 10th among the 436 men entered. In the fall of 2009, he finished 28th among the 2,500 competitors in the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington.
Most cyclists and triathletes can recall every detail of bicycle accidents and struggle not to think of them while riding. Miller, who remembers nothing of his crash, scared his family and girlfriend by getting back in the saddle – of his repaired bike no less – agreeing to wear a motorcycle-like helmet and ride on roads without automobile traffic.
Miller completed Ironman Cozumel among the top 10 percent of the field and vowed to do another – after medical school. He still competes in shorter triathlons and other races. Over the weekend he completed the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia in 59:26, a pace just under a 6-minute mile.
Not bad for a guy wrapping up his second year of medical school.
Vitez says he still struggles to explain how Miller got through the ordeal with such an upbeat personality.
“I think he put his family through such a horror that he was determined not to complain or let anything slow down his recovery out of respect and love for Emily and his family since he had caused them such pain,” he said. “There are such great qualities in this kid and it was a thrill to share it.”
(To hear an interview with Michael Vitez, author of The Road Back, click HERE)