St. Petersburg Times: Special report


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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

When Jim woke the next morning, the nurses told him that his wife had called Ertl's office several times while he was in surgery.

Ivonne hadn't forgotten him. He forgave her for not telephoning before he left Florida. Then he called.

Jim’s first stop when he returned from California was the Garden restaurant, a favorite hangout. Ivonne, his soon to be ex-wife, had accompanied him home. Ivonne’s support was crucial to Jim’s confidence.

"I love you," Jim said into the receiver. "I just thought I'd mention that."

Ertl walked through the open door as Jim was hanging up. Jim turned, beaming, toward the doctor.

"You look really good," Ertl said. "You feel a difference?"

"For the first time since the accident, I really feel as though I can do this," Jim said. "The legs feel like they belong to me again. They used to feel like something was broken inside."

Jim was experiencing a great deal of pain -- a throbbing, nonspecific ache and electric shocks from his overly agitated nerve endings. But intense as the pain was, Jim could accept it because he knew it meant he was getting better.

Ertl explained what he had done during the operation. His words described the difference between solving an immediate medical problem and helping the patient live a more functional life after the surgery.

"This is the oldest operation in the world," Ertl said. "But I don't think we prepare people enough for the change we're creating. Sure, we saved your life, but now you have to deal with a whole new set of circumstances."

Ertl, as it turned out, planned to be in Sarasota for a medical conference at the end of March, six weeks away. If everything went according to plan, Jim might be wearing his first prosthetic legs by then.

Maybe we can get together, Ertl said.

As Ertl left, Jim opened a bottle of French red wine he had on his nightstand. Sipping from a foam cup, Jim thumbed the button on the morphine drip like a boy with a video game. On the muted television Dale Earnhardt crashed into the wall and died on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

* * *

Jim's thoughts drifted on a warm tide of morphine and wine. He remembered a bottle of $175 cabernet sauvignon that he and Ivonne once shared. He was touched that Ivonne had tried so hard to reach him. Yes, they were getting a divorce, but love -- even under such strained circumstances -- was far better than being alone.

* * *

While he was in the hospital, his lawyers in St. Petersburg called to say they'd settled his suit against the two drivers who caused the accident. After paying off Bayfront Medical Center, the lawyers, and setting aside $101,457 for an annuity for his daughter, Giselle, Jim was left with $1,403,603.90. Whatever lay ahead for him physically, money would not be the reason he would not walk again.

To calculate the size of Jim's settlement, his attorneys had used actuarial tables to determine his life expectancy. Before the accident, a healthy Jim Miller might have had about 20 years to live. The lawyers estimated Jim had half that much time left. Another perhaps more frightening statistic showed amputees have a higher rate of suicide. One study from Finland in 1969 indicated amputees were 300 percent more likely to kill themselves than non-amputees of the same age.

Jim had emerged from the other side of the surgery only to discover a disquieting irony -- he was moving forward, but losing time.

In the beginning, Jim had dreaded not getting the chance to walk. Now, more than a year since the accident in December 1999, he worried that relearning to walk might monopolize whatever time he had left.

Metaphorically, Jim had restarted the clock on his recuperation. He was back at the beginning with freshly amputated legs. Without question, the surgery had been necessary, if only to alleviate the pain caused by the bone spurs. But the surgery, as Jim knew, would not by itself make him walk.

"I have realistic expectations and great determination," he had written to Ertl months before.

But in the months ahead, Jim would discover that nothing would control his destiny as surely as the battle between what he wanted and what he was capable of.

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