St. Petersburg Times: Special report


E-mail the writer:
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

Finally, a phone call

Jim's lawyers told him it would be helpful for the settlement negotiations if they made a video that showed how his life had changed since the accident. The video was shot just before Christmas, a year since he lost his legs.

The video shows Jim from the moment he wakes. He pulls on his shorts by rolling back and forth on his bed. Then, still sitting on the bed, he pulls the sheets taut.

“My daughter was coming to think of me as the man with wheels, and I don’t want her to do that. I would rather she know me as the guy without legs than the guy with wheels.”

"When your bed is in the living room, you want to keep it neat," he says.

The video cuts back and forth between Jim in action and scenes of him sitting in his scooter, elbows propped casually on the armrests. In these scenes, the sun is streaming through the picture windows of his living room. Jim talks philosophically but plainly about the aftermath of the accident.

When the accident happened, Jim says, "I figured I had 12 to 14 good years left. Really, I have seven. Everything takes twice as long as it used to. The rest of my life is going down the drain going to the bathroom, taking a shower, making a cup of coffee.

"What pretty girl would find me sexually attractive? It works down from there. Employers don't want me."

At the end of the video, he talks about why getting out of the chair is important.

"My daughter was coming to think of me as the man with wheels, and I don't want her to do that. I would rather she know me as the guy without legs than the guy with wheels.

"There will come a time when I have to take her to the prom and she will think, 'Oh, boy, how are they going to react to Dad?' And I'm not looking forward to that."

* * *

Jim left for Sacramento on his 59th birthday. He had plenty of time during the trip to contemplate how little had been accomplished the previous year. He was impatient to move forward, but he was worried that his expectations were unrealistic.

In January, Ertl's assistant called with a firm date for the surgery: Feb. 17.

"It's real," Jim wrote in an e-mail to his friends. "They are going to overhaul these useless stumps so I can wear prostheses -- maybe. Yahoo!"

"I remind myself," Jim continued, "that after a wasted year the odds to walk are a lot longer. I am angry about the wasted time above all, and I will use that anger to help me prove wrong all those who said, 'What's your hurry?' May they all rot."

Privately, Jim had doubts. Somebody had shown him a triumphant video of a bilateral amputee learning to walk. But he found out that the man later developed sores on the ends of his stumps and couldn't wear prosthetics anymore. That scared Jim to death.

On the day that he was to fly to Sacramento, Jim woke up well before dawn. His throat was scratchy, his nose was runny. The pain in the stumps of his legs was tolerable.

His first thought was the cold would scotch the operation. I'm not going to get the surgery after all this time, he thought.

Nervous and unable to sleep, he hopped out of bed onto his scooter. He showered, made a pot of coffee and took a double-dose of an herbal antidepressant that didn't do anything for his cold or his leg pain but made him feel more cheerful in general. Still in his underwear, he pulled his scooter up to his computer. He began an e-mail to Ivonne.

I'm leaving for Sacramento this afternoon, he wrote. The surgery is scheduled for Saturday morning. You have the phone numbers. If anything happens, you know where I keep the checkbook and money. Jim didn't mention it in the e-mail, but he told me he was hurt she hadn't called to wish him happy birthday.

At noon, Jim hoisted himself into the driver's seat, put the car in reverse and punched the gas with his hand.

* * *

In clogs, Dr. Jan Ertl was well over 6 feet tall. His beefy shoulders filled the loose-cut sleeves of his hospital scrubs. His welcome, delivered in a deep, casual voice, seemed to get caught in the corner of his mustache.

Dr. Jan Ertl, an orthopedic surgeon in Sacramento, Calif., came from a line of doctors who had specialized in amputation.

He took a seat on a rolling stool and held the X-rays of Jim's legs up to the light.

In the two-tone images, the bone growths on the ends of Jim's femurs looked like smoke seeping from factory stacks. Really they were solid, arrowheadlike masses jutting into the surrounding soft tissue.

"This is impressive," Ertl said. He grasped Jim's stumps like he was palming a small ball. He pressed his thumb on the underside of the leg.

"Does this hurt?"

"No. . . . Yes," Jim said, wincing.

"That's your sciatic nerve," Ertl said. "It's stuck in the scar tissue."

The pain Jim felt was the result of that nerve being agitated, he said.

"We won't do a revision on you," Ertl said. "We'll do a reconstruction."

For the first time, Jim knew that the surgery was going to happen.

"Excellent," he said, smiling broadly.

Ertl said he would need four to five hours to do both legs. Be prepared for pain, he said. I'll be taking off about a half-inch of bone and working over the muscles some.

"Do you have any questions for me?"

When Jim discovered he could not walk until he had corrective surgery for bone spurs on the ends of his stumps, he sought surgeon Jan Ertl’s expertise.

Instead of a question, Jim rattled off everything he knew about the mechanics of the surgery. Then, assuming the role of an advocate for better health care, he asked why Ertl's technique was "invisible to the world."

"Not the world," Ertl said.

"Is it because it's such a long procedure that all the doctors are not doing it?"

"Find me somebody that's interested," Ertl said.

"You pass that off really casually," Jim said. "Why did it take me eight months to find out about it?"

"It's taken me much longer," Ertl said. "It's taken me much longer to get here than for you to sit here only a year out. You understand?" he said.

Ertl paused, then continued.

"I've presented my work. People know it's out there. I've been in practice 15 years. It's taken me a long time to get people to listen to me. You can't change people's thinking overnight, especially when they're so adamantly opposed.

"Why? I don't know," Ertl said. "They've never done it. They're afraid to do it."

"It's just that I have watched other people do the same battle I have to get here and lose," Jim said. "They were left broken and hopeless. I would like to help them have a little better idea what their options are if I can."

Their exchange wound down quickly, like an airplane propeller, until they had returned to a place of static cordiality.

See you at 9 a.m., Ertl said.

He's good, Jim said later as he replayed the meeting, but he's got that surgeon's arrogance.

* * *

Jim had been here before.

The nurse started the IV drip at 11:17 a.m.

Then he was on his back on the gurney, being wheeled into surgery.

He saw only ceiling tiles, a water stain or two.

His horizon was gone again.

A little groggy from the drugs, he told the nurse about the hallucination he had after the first operation. He'd been kidnapped by terrorists and held for ransom. "You're making a big mistake," he told the terrorists. "I'm broke."

At 11:25 a.m. he was unconscious.

A nurse taped his eyes shut.

* * *

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The series


After losing his legs in a violent accident, Jim Miller vows to walk again. He begins an odyssey he never imagined.


Jim has much-needed surgery and slowly reconnects with his family. But conflicts within himself and with others stall his efforts to walk.


After a lonely but productive time in France, Jim returns home and discovers what he needs to move forward in his life.