The struggle to save a cycling crash victim

Matt Miller stands on the Chestnut Street Bridge over 24th Street, near where he lives. It has been three years since he suffered massive injuries in a cycling accident in Virginia. AVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Matt Miller stands on the Chestnut Street Bridge over 24th Street, near where he lives. It has been three years since he suffered massive injuries in a cycling accident in Virginia. AVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 15, 2012

Three years ago, Inquirer reporter Michael Vitez wrote about Matt Miller, an aspiring young triathlete who survived a cycling crash that, but for an extraordinary stroke of luck, would have killed him. The stories drew an overwhelming response from readers. Vitez gives a full account of Matt’s accident and his struggle to recover in a newly published book, “The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit.” The following excerpt comes from the opening chapter.

Mark Harris didn’t know what caused the cyclist to spill over the double yellow line and fall into the path of the oncoming blue Porsche, but he saw it happen. He saw the rider hit the sports car, flip into the air, and land on the asphalt. “That boy’s dead,” he said to his wife.

Harris doesn’t remember slamming on his own brakes, running to the boy’s side. But he got there first.

The boy wasn’t breathing, and he was making the kind of posturing — arms and legs straight, rigid — that indicated significant brain damage. He was bleeding out of his mouth and from his ear, sure signs of a skull fracture. His face was completely crushed.

Mark Harris just happened to be Dr. Mark Harris, an anesthesiologist. The doctor, who only seconds ago had been enjoying a peaceful ride with his classic car club, assessed his options and made a “battlefield decision” to move aggressively.

“If he has a neck injury he might be paralyzed,” Harris thought to himself. “But if I don’t do something to get him breathing again, he’ll be dead.”

Harris cradled the bleeding youth in his lap. His jaw was fractured on both sides and was completely loose. All his teeth were smashed. The cyclist was unconscious, motionless.

Harris turned him on his side, so all the blood would spill into the doctor’s lap rather than down the boy’s throat. He cleared out the broken teeth with his fingers, and then — what almost no one else on the planet and even few doctors would have known to do — he tugged the boy’s shattered jaw forward.

“It’s a painful stimulus,” Harris explained later. “The idea is if you provide a painful stimulus, they will breathe on their own. I hurt him as best I could to get him to breathe.”

The boy started to breathe.

Rudy Kahsar and Chris Morrow, members of the University of Virginia triathlon club, had been riding with their classmate, Matt Miller, and reached him about the same instant as Harris, who told them to dial 911. Rudy had his cellphone, but couldn’t get any reception, not even one bar.

Right at that section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, milepost 12.2, there is a high steep ridge on one side of the road, and that might have been blocking any cell reception. Rudy saw a collection of giant boulders, and climbed to the top of them, hoping the added elevation might give him better reception.

“I’ve got to get higher,” he told himself, and scrambled up as high as he could get, and got one bar on his phone. Maybe that was a miracle, too, just like an anesthesiologist being in the very last car of the classic car caravan, right behind the blue Porsche, and so Rudy called 911 so many times the Augusta County dispatcher asked him to stop calling. Then he ran back to the others, who were with Matt.

Mary Ann Harris took her husband’s walkie-talkie and tried to radio ahead, but of course the walkie-talkie didn’t work. All the other 30 cars in the caravan just motored on down the road toward the Peaks of Otter Lodge, with not a clue of what had happened — except for one, a red Austin-Healey, third from last in the caravan. The driver must have seen in his rearview mirror what had happened, or at least that something had happened, and he pulled over and ran back to the accident scene.

The driver of the red Austin-Healey began to tell Mark Harris what to do. “Shouldn’t you lay him flat on his back?” The man had no idea who Mark Harris was, other than another member of their car club. But the man seemed to think that whatever Harris was doing was wrong.

Mark is a gentle and soft-spoken man. But this was a battlefield situation — as Mark would say, like being on Anzio Beach — and he dispensed with cordiality.

“I do this every f- ing day,” he barked. “I know what I’m doing!” The driver of the red Austin-Healey got back in his car, and figured maybe the best thing for him to do was try to catch the others, and let them know what had happened.

Pulling Matt’s jaw had triggered his fight-or-flight mechanism. Matt’s brain sensed pain and started the body breathing to prepare for flight. And that’s what Matt tried to do — get up and flee.

Harris was able to grab Matt in time, an open-field tackle, and use his own legs to wrap Matt’s legs in a scissors grip, to keep him from getting up and running just like a wild animal into the woods where he certainly would have died.

Mark Harris understood what was happening and he tried but simply couldn’t hold Matt down by himself. Mark summoned Rudy and Chris to help, each holding a leg. Ken Gregory, the driver of the blue Porsche, grabbed a leg, too.

“It was almost like a wrestling match,” said Gregory. Matt was struggling to breathe, gurgling blood, even as he fought to get up. Mary Ann Harris stayed by her husband, took off her jacket and placed it on top of Matt, to keep him warm. Rudy and Chris tried to speak to Matt — “You’re going to be OK. … You’ve got to go to medical school … your parents are coming” — but he was unresponsive.

Rudy took off Matt’s helmet. It was covered in blood.

They waited for the ambulance, holding Matt down, feeling his life slip away.


To Read More

Tuesday through Friday, philly.com/roadback will feature a daily excerpt from Michael Vitez’s book “The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit.”

You can order the book at www.michaelvitez.com, amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy), or BN.com (Nook edition).

Vitez will be selling and signing books at:

The Irish Mile, 350 Haddon Ave., Haddon Township, Tuesday, May 22, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Haddonfield Library, for a discussion and signing, Wednesday, June 13, at 7 p.m.

Breakaway Bikes, 1923 Chestnut St., Friday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.

Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Branch, for a discussion and signing, Wednesday, July 18, at 7 p.m.

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