Fayette County

Ralph Miller comes back from near-fatal accident

The last thing Dr. Ralph Miller remembers was soaring for miles on his hang glider, descending nearly 2,000 feet from the mountain in Mexico where he had launched on a perfectly beautiful day.

He was preparing to land in a cornfield near his flying companions in Valle de Bravo, about three hours southwest of Mexico City. The next thing he knew, it was two weeks later. He was in a Mexico City hospital's intensive-care unit, hooked up to a ventilator with lots of tubes and wires coming out of his body.

Miller couldn't see or speak. But he could hear the voices of his wife, former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller, and their three grown children. And he realized that their oldest child, Alex, would have had to travel there from his home in Amsterdam.

"It was very vague, but I knew something bad had happened," Ralph said. "So it occurred to me then that he was there to say goodbye.

"I thought, well, Pam is doing well. She's capable. And my children are all married and happy with their families. So if I just go on now — die, in other words — it won't be so bad. I don't have anything left that I really need to do, which is, in retrospect, remarkable."

With that memory, Ralph and his wife start laughing.

They can laugh now. After a month in the Mexico City hospital, a week in University of Kentucky Hospital, another week at Cardinal Hill Hospital and a twice-daily personal regimen of exercise and therapy ever since, Ralph Miller said he has fully recovered from the Feb. 12 adventure that almost killed him.

He suffered seven broken ribs, several cracked vertebrae, a punctured and collapsed right lung, a head injury and internal bleeding made worse by the blood-thinner Coumadin he was taking for a heart condition.

The slow recovery has been hard, because Ralph, 76, has spent most of his life seeing how fast he could go. He once held the world speed skiing record at almost 109 mph. He was on the 1956 U.S. Olympic ski team and had his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He doesn't know exactly what went wrong. "I vaguely remember approaching the field, and then I don't remember anything for two weeks," he said. Ralph thinks a wind gust caught one wing of his hang glider and pushed him into a tree, sending him falling 25 feet to the ground.

One of his companions immediately tied him to a board to keep him from moving and used a cell phone to call an ambulance and Pam in Lexington. "They tell me I tried to get up and said, 'I'm a doctor. I'm all right,'" Ralph said.

After she got the call, Pam phoned her close friend, former Urban County Council member Debra Hensley, and Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs.

Karpf's contacts led them to Dr. Jaime Rosenthal, a Mexico City neurosurgeon. By the time Ralph's ambulance had made the three-hour trip to Mexico City, Rosenthal and a team of specialists were there to care for him.

Pam flew down the next day. It wasn't clear for more than a week if Ralph would live. She gathered their children — Alex, 44, Eric, 42, and Karen, 40, who are parents to the Miller's seven grandchildren.

"It was really kind of like, 'Come and say goodbye to Dad,'" Pam said. "The three kids and I really had some very intimate conversations ... That was a profound experience."

Even after Ralph's body began to stabilize, the family worried about brain injury. "We didn't know if the Ralph we knew was going to emerge from this," she said.

Pam felt better when he began coming to. "The first thing I could understand him to say, through the ventilator, was 'They're trying to kill me!'" she said. "He wanted to get out of there and go outside. That sounded like the Ralph we knew."

Aside from almost losing her husband, the most emotional part of the ordeal for Pam was the outpouring of support from friends and the Lexington community.

Based on Pam's frequent phone calls from Mexico, Hensley sent out a daily e-mail update that eventually went to more than 300 people, from Lexington leaders to college and Olympic team friends the Millers hadn't seen in years.

When people asked how they could thank the doctors in Mexico, Hensley helped set up a fund at Central Christian Church to help pay the hospital expenses of poor Mexicans that Rosenthal operates on at no charge.

When the Millers are out shopping now in Lexington, people recognize the former mayor and come up and ask her husband how he's doing. Grocery clerks spontaneously remark that he's looking well.

The accident prompted Ralph to retire from UK, where he was a faculty member in the Division of Endocrinology and Molecular Medicine. He now plans to spend time on medical research and writing. He hopes to help one former colleague with a medical mission to Ecuador, and another with a project in Eastern Kentucky.

"I told Pamela that I wouldn't hang glide any more, for her sake," Ralph said. But it is clear he will miss it.

He was a private pilot for years before he discovered hang gliding while on sabbatical in Switzerland in 1977. When the Millers returned to Lexington, he waited until their children were grown before pursuing the sport. He took advanced lessons at Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga and made hundreds of flights, including three trips to Valle de Bravo.

Sitting in his living room — where there is a print of Andrew Wyeth's famous painting of a bird's eye view of flight — Ralph talks about the excitement of hang gliding: launching from mountains, soaring alongside birds, catching thermal winds to stay aloft and silently drifting across the landscape at 20 mph.

"The closest thing I can think of that's like hang gliding is the kind of flying you might do in a dream," he said.

Ralph's hang-gliding days may be over. But he plans to continue the active life that, despite his accident, has left him with energy and stamina that most other 76-year-olds would envy.

A marathon runner, he is now jogging five or six miles a day and working on his tennis game in the hope of beating his wife, an avid player. The Millers have family ski trips planned to France in February and Colorado in March. And he plans to get more serious about windsurfing, a sport his sons enjoy.

The Millers are thankful for their good fortune, the help of friends and strangers and a second chance at life together.

"I feel like I have him all over again ... " Pam said.

"For better or for worse," he interrupted.

"No, stop it!" she shot back. "It's wonderful. I wasn't sure that was going to be the case."

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