Mike Miller, Matt's father, made a suggestion: “Let’s go meet Mark and Mary Ann Harris and thank them in person.”
“I’m in,” said Nancy, Matt's mother.
“I want to go,” wrote Matt.
So Mike called ahead, and the three Millers drove to the doctor’s home in Charlottesville, Va.
Mark Harris stood on his front walk. Seeing Matt get out of the car and approach, the tears just flowed down his face. To see this young man, who he was sure was going to die on the mountain, or die within the hour, striding up his front walk was immensely moving for the doctor. And then to be embraced by him, wrapped in a hug of gratitude, this was so utterly satisfying and rewarding and unexpected and wonderful — one of the greatest moments in Mark Harris’ life.
“It’s like seeing someone you love come back from the dead,” Mark Harris said. “There he was. He was walking.”
At the time of the accident, Mark Harris thought of his actions as 45 minutes of medical assistance, of doing his duty. He expected the boy to die. But even if Matt survived, Harris figured he’d hear that the boy was going to make it, which he did from colleagues at the University of Virginia.
“We didn’t expect to hear much else,” said Harris. “We hoped he’d do well.” Mark never expected a phone call from Mike Miller thanking him, much less to see this strong, healthy young man walking up to his front door.
Because he was an anesthesiologist, the gesture by the Millers to come and thank him and Mary Ann in person was even more affecting. Gratitude is something anesthesiologists in particular almost never see.
“As an anesthesiologist, we don’t really see the patient,” Mark explained. “Almost nobody ever comes to us in our field to express that kind of appreciation and love. We just recede into the background. You expect the surgeon to get a lot of credit, and the other principal physicians who have a relationship with the patient. And that’s it.”
Not this time.
Matt had been forbidden by his doctors — Stephen Park and Jared Christophel of the University of Virginia Health System — from speaking. He was told that talking, or trying to talk through a wired jaw, could damage the alignment, cause the bones to set improperly, create immense problems. Matt was about the most motivated patient alive, determined to follow his doctors’ orders to allow for the maximum healing.
But there, meeting Harris, hugging him, Matt felt the moment required more than a grunt, more than any written note, more even than a hug. After the hug, he looked at the doctor and spoke, as best he could through his wired jaw: “Thank you.”
Through his own tears, after stepping back from the embrace, and taking a long look at Matt, Harris replied, “I’m having a real hard time believing what I’m seeing.”
The Millers were invited in, and soon the Harrises were recounting every detail from that November morning. Matt peppered the Harrises with notes, questions. At one point, the doctor, 60, got down on the floor, lying on his back, arms and feet clenched and extended, showing the position in which he’d found Matt, indicating substantial brain trauma and questionable survival.
Harris got back on the floor, moments later, demonstrating the wrestling-style scissors hold in which he used his own legs to keep Matt from jumping up and running away. Mary Ann told Nancy how she had wanted to go to the hospital that afternoon, and comfort her, but felt she would only have been intruding.
They laughed even more than they cried. It was a wonderful bonding moment, one that would cement these two families forever, or at least what they all felt like would be forever.
As Matt listened to Harris recount the fateful morning in such detail, he knew the doctor was describing him, talking about him, telling the absolute truth, but Matt just could not summon any mental image. This had happened less than six weeks ago in his own life, but he couldn’t picture it — which, frankly, was fine with him.
Matt’s appreciation for what Harris did was in no way diminished by the fact that he couldn’t remember any of it. He felt a swelling gratitude to this man, and he could see how powerful this connection was between the two families.
What struck Mary Ann was not only Matt’s physical recovery, but his emotional one. She didn’t know Matt before the accident, obviously, but to see him in her family room, so positive, so determined, so grateful and full of joy — to read his notes about his girlfriend, Emily Privette, and his schoolwork, and his plans — she found this just as amazing as, maybe even more amazing than, his survival.
When she was working as a social worker, she focused on at-risk children and their families. And one of the things she always looked for in kids was their resiliency. How strong could they be? How well could they survive the things they were facing? And with Matt, there was no question about his resiliency, his strength. She knew just how rare it was, and just how much it mattered.
Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.
To Read More
You can order Michael Vitez’s book “The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit” at www.michaelvitez.com, amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy), or BN.com (Nook edition). The print version is not available in chain bookstores and must be ordered online.
Vitez will be selling and signing books at:
The Irish Mile, 350 Haddon Ave., Haddon Township, Tuesday 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 Library on the Parkway, for a discussion and signing, Wednesday, July 18, at 7 p.m.