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How a brush with death helped turn a young man into an end-of-life doctor

“A big piece of that picture was learning how much I need others”

PORTLAND, Maine — As a hospice and palliative care doctor, B.J. Miller has experience and insights into death that few, if any, of his colleagues can match.

He was nineteen years old, a college sophomore, relaxed and carefree, home for Thanksgiving, and out having fun with some of his buddies. “There was a parked commuter train and we decided to climb on top of it, not thinking that it was such a dangerous thing to do,” he recalls. “I had a metal watch on. When I stood up, the electricity which ran overhead arced to the watch. And that was it.”

In a way, Miller was lucky, because he could easily have drawn his last breath on the top of that train car, his body literally smoking from the enormous electric charge. “I ended up losing both legs below the knee and one of my arms, and came pretty close to death,” he says. “And that opened my eyes in all sorts of ways.”

For one thing, it immersed him in the medical world. “I had never really danced with health care one way or another. I found it to be an amazing place. I got amazing care…And I also got a window into some of the dysfunction around health care, and how overburdened our clinicians are in some ways. Not just clinicians, the whole staff, and how we ask so much of our doctors.”

What ran even deeper was the way he examined his own life and the hard questions he asked. “What am I made of? What’s important to me? Who am I?”

Along the way, he made some life-changing discoveries that have informed his career in hospice and palliative care. “A big piece of that picture was learning how much I need others, how dependent we human beings are on one another. I knew that—but I got to really feel it.”

Note: Dr. B.J. Miller will speak virtually at the Hospice of Southern Maine 10th annual Thresholds Conference on May 20. Click on the link above for more information.

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