St. Petersburg Times: Special report

Intro

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Bill Duryea

Day One:
Deciding to go
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Day two:
The way there
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Day three:
When you arrive
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Walking to Paris: Story by Bill Duryea,  Photographs by Bill Serne  of the Times

DAY ONE of a 3-day series
DECIDING TO GO

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Published July 14, 2002

I should jump.

That's what Jim always said he'd do if he ever found himself in front of an oncoming car. He had worked out the escape plan one icy winter night in college after a car lost control pulling into a gas station and nearly hit him. Jump and take your chances.

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On Dec. 23, 1999, a car collided with a pickup truck on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg and careened into a service station where Jim Miller was adding oil to his van.

His chance had arrived.

Jim was standing in front of his van at a gas station just north of downtown St. Petersburg, about to add a quart of oil. He'd made a quick stop on the way to the mall to do some Christmas shopping.

He heard the squeal and scrape of cars colliding behind him on Fourth Street.

Fender bender, Jim thought. Doesn't involve me.

He turned to see a black Mercedes veering off the road directly at him. He had time for these two thoughts:

Jump.

No time.

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Learning to walk again was difficult for Jim Miller, but he found that time with his 3-year-old daughter, Giselle, eased those frustrations. Though she lived with her mother in Orlando, Giselle would visit Jim at his home in St. Petersburg where they swam in his pool.

The Mercedes struck his van head-on, crushing Jim between the bumpers. The force knocked the van backward. The car's hood buckled. Warm metal pressed against Jim's cheek. Engine heat seeped from the van grille against his back. Jim was still pinned when paramedics arrived.

Both his shin bones and knees had been so pulverized that torn ligaments and skin were all that held his legs together.

The paramedics loaded him with morphine. If the ride to Bayfront Medical Center had been any longer, they would have given him the last dose they had in the ambulance.

The admitting nurse wrote Jim's full name on a chart: James Blair Miller; his date of birth: 2/15/42; and the date: 12/23/99.

Fifteen minutes after the accident, Jim was in the emergency room, where a surgeon looked at the legs and saw nothing he could save. He knew he had to finish what the car's fender had begun. "Life before limb," the surgeon said to himself as he cut through the knee joints and tied off the ruptured blood vessels.

It was dark in the recovery room except for the glowing lights of the machines. Out the window, Jim could see billowing clouds of steam shrouding a dark shape, looming and monolithic.

He couldn't move. He couldn't sit up. He could breathe, but only just. He couldn't speak. He had an overwhelming feeling of fear that he had been abandoned.

He thought he could see other bodies, but he didn't know if they were alive or dead. Had he been left here to die, too?

He imagined he was the victim of a terrorist kidnapping. His life had been hijacked, everything he once was had been taken from him.

* * *

Ivonne came to Jim's hospital room the day after the accident -- Christmas Eve. Jim looked terrible. His face was moon-shaped, swollen from fluid retention. He opened his eyes a couple of times, but didn't speak.

Ivonne returned the following day. Jim was awake. He was glad to see her.

"You won't believe what happened to me," he said.

The circumstances couldn't have been much more difficult for the two of them. In the months since Jim had filed for divorce, they had communicated mostly through their lawyers. Their last conversation before the accident had been an argument about why Ivonne, who was living in Orlando, wouldn't let Jim see their daughter Giselle without a court order.

Ivonne put all that aside when she heard about his accident.

She was all Jim had in the way of family. When he was in intensive care, she would read him the newspaper or just sit with him. After several days when he was moved to the long-term rehabilitation ward, she brought Giselle, who was almost 2. But they didn't stay long. Ivonne, a court translator, had her job and another child, a son from a previous marriage, to take care of at home.

Jim vowed he would not linger in the hospital. He told this doctors he had been through worse, something they found hard to comprehend. They marveled at his optimism, but they suspected he was having difficulty coming to terms with the reality of what had happened.

He kept talking about walking. Jim told Ivonne he knew his chances were slim. He knew that his injuries and his age, 57, made him an unusual and difficult case. But he never stopped saying that he would walk again.

"Life in a wheelchair," he said, "is not an option."

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