PROVO — A great athlete in perfect shape — and almost dead.
This is the 45-day saga in the life of former BYU All-American golfer and current BYU director of golf Todd Miller, son of Hall of Famer and NBC TV analyst Johnny Miller. This week, feeling 80 percent healthy, he walked alongside players at the Cougar Classic, gratitude tattooed upon his soul.
Never take life for granted, even if you’ve never been sick a day in your life, testifies Todd. One day toward the end of February he was walking Tucson National following his players, and the next day he thought he was having a heart attack.
“We could have lost him,” said BYU golf coach Bruce Brockbank. “Another half day and he could have been gone.”
Todd woke up at 4 a.m. in a Tucson hotel on March 1, with big-time pain in his neck. He took some Advil, got up and he and his wife Shannon drove to Phoenix to catch a flight back to Utah. In the air, he felt worse and by the time he got home, he was as sick as he’d ever been in his life and had chest pains.
“He told me he had to see a doctor,” said Shannon, “and he’d never said that before.”
Todd basically has no medical records, no files. He’d never been sick.
“I knew it was serious when he said that,” said his wife, who sent a text to a team doctor. The doctor advised her to take Todd to the emergency room.
At the ER, the medical staff took a blood sample and X-ray, protocol for chest pains, but tests didn’t show anything alarming. He was given anti-inflammatory meds and released.
“But it was a misdiagnosis,” said Brockbank. “This gave his infection a free zone to attack.”
“They did everything they were supposed to; it just didn’t show anything,” said Todd.
During the next few days, Todd's condition worsened. “He was so weak I had to spoon feed him,” said Shannon. By Friday, things were bleaker. “I had to dress him, it was like having a newborn infant.”
Shannon called Dr. Tom Dickinson, a gastroenterologist and neighbor, who arranged for Miller to be examined in his office, which included a CAT scan. He had a temperature of 104.7.
The technician read the CAT scan and approached Todd. “He was emotional, I could see the fear in his eyes,” said Todd. “He said I had to get to the hospital as fast as I could.”
The test showed he had a blood clot in the jugular vein in his neck. It had broken up into pieces and formed an abscess in his chest. “You have this scary infection headed for your heart,” the doctor said.
Once in the hospital, Todd was taken to the second-floor intensive care unit, where a team of 10 doctors and nurses, all in scrubs and masks, took him from a wheelchair, stripped him down and began to stick him with IVs. They created a PICC line for powerful antibiotics, working to prevent Todd from going septic.
“The blood clot had broken up and entered his lungs,” said his dad Johnny. “He couldn’t breathe. The abscess was the size of a golf ball, right above his heart. What he had is Lemierre's disease, and on top of that, he had a MRSA infection.”
Johnny left his weekend NBC duties to be by Todd’s side.
“I told him he didn’t need to leave Mexico,” said Shannon. “But Johnny said he could not go on the air, that he’d be too emotional.”
The same doctor who earlier had performed a thyroidectomy on Shannon, cut into Todd to remove the abscess, at the identical spot she had experienced.
“Some people get matching tattoos. I told Todd, we now have matching scars.”
Johnny, who was at Riverside Country Club this past week following his son, said if Shannon hadn’t taken Todd for that CAT scan, he may have died.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, he would have died.”
Lemierre's is a rare infection, one in a million people get it. It sometimes appears in younger people who use heroin needles. Of the 15 nurses who worked on Todd over this time, none had heard of it.
Todd was in the hospital 12 days, seven of them in the ICU. Every morning during staff changes, Johnny was there at 5:30 a.m., to be with his son. Shannon kept a family routine, breakfast for the kids, then drop-offs at school, and then she’d join Todd at 9 a.m. and relieve Johnny. There are tales of Shannon getting after hospital staff to keep Todd’s meds up to date by the minute. She left nothing to chance.
“That Sunday was the hardest,” said Shannon. “It was fast Sunday. Honestly, I could just feel the prayers; it was overwhelming. It was the hardest day in the hospital because he was in bad shape. But I could feel the love, it was an uplifting power that was real. Johnny was great. He was there for us, and it meant everything.”
Shannon said what she learned is to thank modern medicine. When Todd got out of the hospital, he still had the PICC line in his arm. The next day he was pitching a tennis ball to his 5-year old son, who hit it right back at Todd and struck him where the PICC line was. Shannon told him if he didn’t stop it, if this didn’t kill him, she would. That night, rubbing Todd’s arm, she felt a big blood clot near the PICC line.
“Don’t worry, I’m on blood thinners,” Todd told her.
Slowly, Todd healed. He’d lost 14 pounds. By April he was able to join BYU’s golf team at the Stanford Invitational, where he rode in a cart and sat by the par-3 holes. It was killing him to not walk with the players. He’d got the PICC line out the day before the trip.
The next week, at Chambers Bay near Seattle, he was able to walk one round on a course he says is the toughest in the world to walk.
“Right now, I’m about 80 percent. If I were to go on a short jog, I know I couldn’t go long and would have to lie down and rest because I’d be so tired.
“For me, it’s two things,” said Todd, following BYU’s victory in its Cougar Classic on Tuesday.
“I’m amazed at people who live and deal with chronic pain. Every single day they wake up hurting, but they end up having a good outlook on life and do things. I’ve never been sick in my entire life and to sit in that hospital, I’d never appreciated it more than I do now to be able to be outside and enjoy life.”
Second? “I’ve learned I’m not quite as strong as I thought I was. Sometimes in life you think everything is going good, you feel fine and then you wake up at 4 a.m. with a pain in your neck, then the ER and then ICU. We need to take care of our bodies.
“I’m grateful to have a wife by my side who was on top of everything, making decisions, questioning care, calling doctors and nurses to make sure they were taking care of me.
“It was pretty cool that my dad came. Every morning he came in. When my dad was there with me, I felt a great strength. I’m so lucky to have a dad that dropped everything to be with me and support me. It is awesome.”
In thanking the golf community, friends, and players for their love, Todd said it was a tangible power he could feel in his struggle. Now, he has 30 moms coming up to him telling him he’d better not be golfing, “and my wife has me on lock down.”
Todd Miller is an exceptional athlete, who in February was in perfect shape. He is respected by players because he’s not only been in their shoes, playing golf at the highest level of amateur competition, but he also has his legendary passion for seeing players learn and excel.
This week he was walking the fairways, testing the greens, reading breaks and enjoying the spring air.
He’ll never take it for granted again — if he ever did.
This Easter weekend certainly will take on a deeper meaning for him, for Shannon, and the legendary Johnny Miller family.
Where once there was a glimpse at death, there is life.