The Long Road Back

A young Jacksonville woman has battled every obstacle thrown in her way
Brittany Miller, 20, who lost her leg to the flu, hopes to walk down the aisle next summer without the assistance of the pink crutches she got for a Christmas gift. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photoBob Pennell

Brittany Miller's engagement ring sparkles almost as much as her eyes as she talks about her bridal wish. The 20-year-old Jacksonville resident hopes to walk down the aisle next summer without the assistance of her pink crutches.

"I want to look beautiful. I don't want anyone to even be able to tell," Brittany said.

How to help

If you would like to help Brittany Miller pay for her prosthetic leg, call Spectrum Orthotics and Prosthetics at 541-734-2435, or send a check to Brittany's fund at 1180 Crater Lake Ave., Medford, 97504.

Brittany lost her right leg above the knee due to medical complications after she contracted a simple case of the flu. The spirited college coed hopes to regain a custom-made prosthetic leg she was forced to return when her insurance company refused to pay for the bionic limb.

Her family members are simply thankful Brittany is alive. Her mom, Brenda Miller, and younger sister, Lauren Miller, smile while wiping away tears in the family living room.

"I'm grateful I have my daughter," Brenda said, adding she still second-guesses what she might have done differently when rest, fluids and even her annual flu shot did not save Brittany from nearly becoming one of the annual death statistics from the common flu.

"It's something that goes through my head all the time," she said. "It's just hard to believe it really happened. It was just the flu."

All three of the Millers had contracted the flu last winter. But Brittany seemed to be the most impacted.

On Jan. 15, 2011, while Brenda was working as an MRI technician at Rogue Valley Medical Center, Brittany called to say her feet were cold and numb. Brenda suggested she take a warm shower. Lauren called to say Brittany had passed out.

Brenda took her daughter to the RVMC emergency room, where doctors initially thought the normally healthy, active teen was simply dehydrated.

Brittany was given intravenous fluids as a precaution. But her fever soared, as did her heart rate, even as her blood pressure plummeted and her breathing became more labored. A cardiologist saw fluid build-up around Brittany's heart. Everyone thought once that was drained, her condition would improve quickly, Brenda said.

"But she didn't get better," she said. "She coded that morning. Her heart was failing."

Brittany's kidneys, liver and pancreas were also failing. She was flown to Stanford University Medical Center. Brenda was told her daughter might need a heart transplant, if she survived the next few hours.

"She spent the next month comatose on a heart/lung machine," Brenda said. "They had told me she probably wouldn't make it through the night. She had 18 different IVs in her."

Brittany's body temperature was cooled to 34 degrees Celsius to help her survive. But the sepsis and lack of circulation took a toll on Brittany's extremities. There was extreme tissue death. Photos of her fingers show blackened digits covered in gaping sores.

"Some of my fingers were black to the second knuckle," Brittany said, adding she remembers being told she was going to have surgery at RVMC, then waking up weeks later at Stanford. Unable to speak or move, Brittany said she was frightened and confused about her strange surroundings.

Brittany needed help communicating. So Lauren, 18, made a chart with letters and symbols so her sister could nod while she pointed out words and wishes. Lauren was very adept at understanding Brittany's needs, Brenda said.

"They had it down," she said. "They were pretty fast."

Lauren said it was frightening to see her sister, a former cheerleader and honor student at South Medford High School, fighting for her life.

"It was really scary," Lauren said. "It's hard to talk about. I was so afraid I was going to lose my best friend."

Brittany's right leg suffered the worst damage during the many medical interventions. It too had turned black and needed to be amputated, she said.

"I'd lost my pulse in the leg completely," Brittany said.

Doctors first took her limb below the knee. But when Brittany's fever spiked after the surgery, she was returned to surgery, and this time the amputation point was above the knee, Brenda said.

Brittany was transferred back to RVMC on Feb. 16. She was still on a ventilator, still on dialysis, still dealing with the effects of organ failure. She was also still on feeding tubes and weighed only 84 pounds.

But Brittany battled though every obstacle. Once she was able to be removed from the ventilator at RVMC, she was moved to the rehabilitation floor and endured months of physical therapy. Brittany was determined to walk on her own.

And so came the day when Brittany was fitted with a "micro-processor controlled knee unit," said Patrick Patterson, a specialist with Spectrum Orthotics and Prosthetics in Medford.

The computerized, articulating orthotic was specially fitted to Brittany and designed for a young, active user. Brittany certainly fit the bill, Patterson said. While most patients take one or two steps while standing between the parallel bars in the physical therapy room, Brittany walked more than 100 feet during her first fitting, he said.

"She was able to put this thing on and go," Patterson said. "Her progress was very, very accelerated. Within a month, she was doing things that normally take years to do."

Then Brittany's insurance company, Cigna, denied coverage for the $40,000 prosthetic, Patterson said, because Brittany had reached the maximum benefit under her policy.

Brittany must return her prosthetic or pay $25,000, Brenda said.

And Patterson had to be the one to tell his star patient, he said.

"It's a crying shame what happened," Patterson said. "That was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. It was gut-wrenching. We wrote appeal after appeal letter."

Forest Sexton, owner of Spectrum, found a loner prosthetic for Brittany to use while she awaited the results of several appeals to the insurance company. But it too will soon have to be returned, as it belongs to another company, he said.

On Dec. 20, Brittany said, she received a letter from Cigna denying her final appeal.

Lauren and Brenda Miller are frustrated Brittany is having to face more hurdles on her road to recovery.

"She has been through so much, and she has a terrific attitude," Brenda said. "I'm just so proud of her. I can't say that enough."

The socket on the loaner leg is ill-fitting, which has impacted Brittany's comfort and her therapy, Brenda said.

"It's not right," Lauren said, adding it makes her angry to think about what Brittany has been through and what she's capable of doing. Brittany did not ask to become ill. Nothing that has happened to her sister was a result of poor choices on her part, Lauren said.

"She was a cheerleader and an honor student and she's trying to go to college. She likes to wakeboard and do all sorts of things," Lauren said.

Brittany wants to get on with her life. She plans to return to RVMC and thank the doctors and nurses who helped save her life. Next summer she wants to marry the young man who proposed to her while she was still in the ICU.

But Brittany wants to do it all while standing on her own two feet. Even if she needs a little help from her community to purchase one of them.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.


Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.
COUPON OF THE WEEK