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Wyatt is walking tall: BSU student knows the rigors of physical therapy

Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Wyatt Miller, freshman biology major at Bemidji State University, finds a different type of therapy in spinning at the Ted Gillett Recreation Center.

A broken leg led Wyatt Miller to become a runner.

It also has led him toward a career in the medical field.

“After I broke my leg, it was like, ‘Well, (running) will build my muscle back and it’s something I can do that I know not everyone can do, so I should be grateful for that,’” said Miller, a Bemidji State University freshman studying to become a physical therapist.

The Mankato native ran track his sophomore year of high school and cross-country his junior and senior years.

Not bad for a kid who at 7-years-old broke his left femur, spent about 15 months in casts and surgeries, and an additional 18 months in physical therapy, re-learning how to walk.

“Walking is not usually something people think of as a privilege every day, but when you can’t do it, life is a lot different,” he said.

Then a second-grader, Miller was walking to his grandmother’s house after school on Dec. 5, 2002, when he was struck by a vehicle while in the crosswalk.

He was walking with a friend, preparing to cross a double-lane, one-way street. A semi in the nearest lane had stopped for the boys and waved them across, but a vehicle in the next lane did not apparently see the children and did not stop.

His friend was unhurt, but Miller was struck by the vehicle. He temporarily blacked out and woke up on the side of the road as people rushed to help.

“I don’t think he saw me, and I definitely didn’t see him,” he said. “It hurt. The guy who hit me asked me if I heard something snap or if I thought something had broken, but I had no idea. I just knew it hurt. A lot.”

He was taken to the local hospital, where doctors determined he had broken his femur — the thigh bone, the longest and strongest bone in the body — and was put into traction, a pulley system designed with weights and counterweights to hold the broken bone together.

He spent 19 days in traction, lying in his hospital bed.

On Christmas Eve, he received a cast and was able to go home, but the cast covered most of his lower body. His left leg was nearly completely encased from his waist down and his right thigh also was covered.

He was confined to a wheelchair from December until the spring, when the cast was removed.

And that’s when the family realized there was a problem. The leg had not healed straight, instead healing at an angle, making it about 2 inches shorter than his right leg.

The family was referred to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, where doctors ended up re-breaking his leg and putting in place an external fixator.

“It was basically two rings that would go around my leg,” Miller said. “They were connected by weights, but it had nine pins that went into my leg at different points.”

He started third-grade in a wheelchair.

“They had to go in to re-break my bone and get it to line up correctly,” he said, recalling the surgery. “It was definitely hard at first. I was freaked out but family and friend were always there supporting me, so I just kind of got used to it and focused on trying to get better.”

In January 2004, more than a year after the accident, the fixator was removed.

“It was really weird because they wanted me to try to walk out of the hospital, but that I was something I hadn’t done a lot of at all in the last year, so it was a struggle, to walk out on my own with crutches,” he said.

He then began physical therapy. Again.

Before the car accident, Miller already was attending physical therapy, to strengthen an underdeveloped muscle in his left thigh. His last day of PT, originally, was supposed to be Dec. 5, 2002.

“The day I was hit by the car,” Wyatt said. “That was a little bit unfortunate.”

By the end of third grade, about 16 months after the accident, Wyatt said he was back to feeling like himself, though he did continue PT through fourth grade.

He continued to see his doctor at Gillette until he was 17, initially twice a year and then annually, until it was clear he had finished growing through his legs and he was free of potential complications.

Miller is majoring in biology at BSU and plans to obtain a master’s degree in physical therapy.

“My goal is to become a physical therapist and help out people who are in situations like me, where something happened to them and they can’t operate like they used to,” he said. “I know how much of a difference they can make. It’s something I want to be able to do for other people.”

Miller’s mom, Stephanie Miller, said she often heard in the wake of the accident how fortunate he was to suffer “just” a broken leg.

“Yes, in the big picture, we were lucky that it was just a broken leg, but it ended up being so much more than just a broken leg,” she said.

Stephanie said Wyatt’s attitude and perseverance inspired all of his family members, from his mom and dad, Kevin; to his older sister, Brittany Jones; to his younger brother, Jarrett, who is now running cross-country.

Stephanie herself will run her first half-marathon this fall.

“Someone else recently asked me why and I said it was something that my older son and I shared, an interest of his that we started together,” she said. “You don’t want to take it for granted and you want to use your body the way you are able.”