Fla. battalion chief searches for purpose after health scare
Chief Dan Miller has no memory of dialing 911 on Sept. 18, opening the door of his home to a paramedic he'd trained six months earlier and dropping to the floor
By Lauren Ritchie
LAKE COUNTY, Fla. — Lake County Fire Battalion Chief Dan Miller — one of those tall, brawny guys who could star in a firefighter-and-puppy calendar — has no memory of dialing 911 on Sept. 18, opening the door of his rural Eustis home to a paramedic he’d trained six months earlier and dropping to the floor.
His heart stopped beating twice before the ambulance pulled into AdventHealth Waterman, and it gave out again on a table in the cath lab while doctors were trying to open arteries he didn’t know were in pretty lousy shape for a healthy 41-year-old guy, dad to four boys.
For a week, doctors injected a cold saline solution to keep his body at an abnormally low temperature and put him on a ventilator to breathe for him.
Would the newlywed who was building a master suite onto his Eustis home emerge from the forced coma as himself? Or would the Miller his family and friends knew be a different personality?
Worse yet, would a shell of a human being with blank eyes replace the father, the husband, the builder, the 22-year firefighter?
“They just warmed me back up,” Miller said, as if he were a plate of leftovers. “I saw my wife — I don’t remember what she said, but I knew she was happy. I started asking what happened, and I was like, ‘No way! That didn’t happen!’
“It was kind of unbelievable.”
Not many survive what Miller, EMS battalion chief for Lake County Fire Rescue, called “the perfect storm” of problems that led to his collapse six weeks ago.
Miller had been ailing since August. First, it was a case of shingles. (Later, he would learn that shingles increase the chance of a heart attack by nearly 60%.) Then it was gout.
And finally, a sinus infection sapped his energy. The combo nearly proved deadly. The sinus infection spread, and his body became septic, a condition in which bacteria spreads to the blood and can kill quickly.
All Miller knew was that he felt lousy for weeks.
Later, he learned that he called 911 and told an operator that he thought he was having a heart attack.
He opened the door, he said, “and one of our newer medics was standing there. He thought it might be a joke or a training thing.”
Oh, hardy-har. Nothing like a little real-life situation to liven up the department.
Miller said he later learned that one artery to his heart was 60% blocked and the second was 70% obstructed. But that wasn’t enough to cause the heart attack. He said his electrolytes were off, vital potassium was awry and he was septic.
Since coming home, the 6-foot-6, 213-pound firefighter has been trying to regain the 22 pounds he lost and has been sitting on his porch, surveying the 5 acres around his house. He’d bought it the year before, gutted it and created a home for his new wife and boys.
“I’m at about 50%. I get really tired. I stand up and walk around, but I can’t lift. No rehab yet. I still can’t drive,” he said.
Doctors opened one artery, put a stent in the second and implanted a combination pacemaker/defibrillator that will shock his heart if it goes out of rhythm.
“I’ve been watching TV, trying to recover and relax and enjoy being here,” he said.
That’s the thing about a near-miss with death — it gets a person thinking about his purpose in life.
“Going to work and seeing things like that all the time, you become immune to it. You just don’t think it will happen to you at 41,” Miller said.
Before the heart attacks, the chief said, “I was constantly on the go — gotta get this done, gotta cut the grass, gotta paint the house. I’m still wired to go, go, go.”
Now he’s doing some thinking, and not just about the doors ready to be installed in the new master suite. The boys are back in school, with all the sports and bustle that goes along with pre-teens of 10 and 11 and twins of 14. His wife, Meagan, 35, is back at work for hospice.
“What’s on my schedule today? Nap," he said. "I’ve already been to the doctor.”
Before this life-changing event, Miller said, he and the family went to church “every now and then, but not a lot.” This experience has deepened his faith, he said.
“Everybody says ‘it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.’ The power of prayer, it’s got to count for something,” he said.
But what? Miller is giving it considerable consideration.
“There has to be some reason why I’m here, and I’m trying to figure that out. Why me? Why was I saved and so many other people aren’t?” he said.
“I’m sure God has a plan, I just have to figure it out. I have to listen. I’m not a very good listener.”
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