COLUMBIANA, Ohio – Herman Miller had just turned 23, was starting the second year of his teaching career, and was dating the girl who would eventually become his wife. Life was good.
Oct. 7, 1989, was a Saturday, which meant farm work.
Herman worked from midmorning until 4 p.m. chopping silage on his family’s farm near Leetonia, Ohio. Just a few more loads and the job would be done.
His brother Todd, a fifth-grader, was running the tractor attached to the unloading wagon at the hitch and PTO, and their father operated the tractor that powered the silage blower. Herman was the middle man.
Another wagon was emptied, and the team was one step closer to calling it a day. He hollered to Todd to shut down the tractor.
“We’d been doing this stuff since we were young. It wasn’t like this was the first time,” Herman reflects.
But Todd couldn’t disengage the sticky lever that would stop the PTO from spinning. Herman went to help, reaching for that lever from behind the tractor. He couldn’t reach it from where he was; he took a step toward the still-spinning PTO shaft, consciously looked down to be sure he was out of harm’s way, and reached again for the hand clutch.
He immediately felt the tension start to build. The PTO shaft had grabbed the drawstrings on the bottom of his implement jacket and started wrapping them. It started at his waist, rolling, pulling.
He kept hollering to Todd to shut it off, he remembers. The PTO wrapped Herman tighter, pulling him down with each revolution. The shaft brushed Herman’s jawbone as it tugged at his shoulders.
Seconds felt like hours.
Miraculously, Herman jerked to get away from the machine. His jacket ripped, and he was free.
Standing in the cool October air, Herman was stripped above his waist to just the sleeves on his right arm from the sweatshirt and jacket he was wearing.
He thought he’d gotten away. But there, still spinning on the PTO, was the remainder of his jacket, his sweatshirt, and his left arm.
* * *
Herman woke up the next morning in Allegheny General Hospital, anxious and afraid. Was his arm there?
It turns out it wasn’t.
It was broken in three or four places, dirty and mangled. The doctors couldn’t save the limb. “It probably wouldn’t have been useful to me anyway,” Miller says.
The physicians smoothed the bone and muscles, grafted skin, showed the Millers how to dress and bandage the few inches that were left of the young man’s arm, and hoped for a good recovery.
Two weeks later, Miller was back in the classroom. “I had to go back to teach. I couldn’t sit and think about it. I wasn’t ready to pause and watch life pass me by.”
During spring break, Herman was fitted for a $20,000 prosthetic arm. In the few times the young man wore the device, with the straps that encircled his chest and rested the arm’s weight on his shoulder, he discovered it was more a hindrance than a help. He set the prosthesis aside and pushed on.
“I was very fortunate that I was already right handed, had great health insurance, and the injury didn’t limit me from doing my job,” the math teacher says.
Just weeks after his accident, Miller went back to coaching the high school basketball team, learned to button shirts one-handed, to tie his shoes and neckties a new way, how to wear long sleeves again.
“I never went back to the farm afraid,” Miller says, noting he still helps on the family farm.
“I chalk it up to making a bad decision. I was angry at myself for awhile. I looked down at the PTO before I reached up. I knew better,” he says.
In the 17 years since the accident, Miller has taken his message of inspiration and farm safety on the road, speaking to children’s farm safety day camps, to father-son banquets and Kiwanis. His presentations show people of all ages how to deal with success, adversity, and how to turn lemons into lemonade. If he can help one person make a better decision about life, he’s happy, he says.
Miller has continued to coach basketball every year since 1988, this year as head coach of the Columbiana High School boys’ basketball team. And he’s turned his obstacles and sense of humor into a teaching tool both on the court and in the classroom.
“I’m the only one in the gym with an excuse not to use my left hand on the left side of the basket,” Miller says.
Life has gone on for Miller, who’s now a husband to Jennifer and father to 6-year-old Jeremy.
“They haven’t treated me any different,” he says of his family and friends who were his main support network in healing.
“A lot of times I go through a day not even thinking my arm’s not there,” Miller said. “But then there are always those little jobs where I say, ‘It sure would be nice to have another hand.'”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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