Fayette County

After injury, 'I think I'll give up the flying'

Ralph Miller calls hang-gliding "pure flying."

He learned to fly light aircraft as a young man, but that soon got boring. He wanted to be outside the cockpit.

"It's like sailing in a small boat," Miller said of hang-gliding. "It's very, very simple, like going on a bicycle. You learn to change your weight position automatically and you learn how to go up. You can't really fly, but you can soar like a bird."

The University of Kentucky physician's soaring days are probably over.

Miller, the husband of former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller, returned to Lexington on Friday after spending a month in a Mexico City hospital after a hang-gliding accident in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.

"Something happened, and I still don't know what it was," Miller, 75, said lying in his bed Saturday at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, where he usually works as a faculty member in the Division of Endocrinology and Molecular Medicine at UK. "Two weeks later, I woke up in the intensive care unit."

What happened was Miller hit a tree near the landing area at the end of an idyllic flight on Feb. 12.

"Some of the people who were there think he hit the tip of his glider, and then he spun around and banged onto the ground, falling at least 20 feet," Pam Miller said Saturday at the hospital.

Miller was conscious when he hit the ground, at first trying to get up before friends tied him down to a board to begin taking him to a hospital.

He broke seven ribs, punctured and collapsed his right lung, suffered a concussion and other injuries to his kidneys and stomach. Complicating matters, Miller was on the blood-thinner and anti-coagulant Coumadin, so his bleeding was more serious than it otherwise might have been.

As her husband was en route to the hospital, Pam Miller was on the phone to Dr. Michael Karpf, executive director for medical affairs at UK, who found Dr. Jaime Rosenthal in Mexico City through a mutual friend. Rosenthal had Miller taken to Hospital Angeles Lomas in Mexico City, where he and a team of doctors cared for Miller.

"He just looked like a body there, with all these tubes hanging out of him," Pam Miller said, recalling the first time she saw her husband after she arrived in Mexico City, the day after the accident.

She was joined down there by their three children, ages 39, 41 and 42. Choking up slightly, she said, "Really, we thought we were going to lose him for about three days. It is really miraculous he recovered."

Miller said he has had some minor accidents over his life as an athlete and adventurer.

A skier, he competed in the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and at one time held a world speed record of 109 miles an hour. Miller also mountain climbs, windsurfs and runs marathons. A few years ago, he won his age group in the Columbus Marathon by an hour.

Through all his adventures, Pam Miller said her husband of 46 years was always careful, meticulously checking equipment and conditions.

"He's astounded this happened to him," Miller said. "He got through the Olympics and a lot of other events without ever having a serious injury."

Until that descent, four days into his trip.

Miller was heavily sedated for two weeks and in intensive care three weeks. He had mended enough to take a flight home Friday afternoon on a Learjet that Pam Miller said was essentially an air ambulance, owned by Assist America, a medical transportation company.

Pam Miller said that at Kroger on Saturday morning, "three women who I did not know came up to me and asked how my husband was doing. That's Lexington."

Miller said he expects to be up in about six weeks and looks forward to getting back to activities he loves, such as jogging. But his hang-gliding days are most likely over.

"I think I'll give up the flying," he said. "I don't want to, but I will. That's fair. I think I've put my family through a pretty big stress."