Drunk Driving Crash Changes Life in an Instant

Color Her Incredible!

Drunk driving crash victims / survivors John and Joan Miller

What would you do, if a drunk driving crash injured your brain, and:

  • your skull broke into 24 pieces?
  • doctors predicted you’d remain in a vegetative state if you survived?
  • you had to relearn to swallow, talk, see, balance, think, walk, tie your shoes, etc.?
  • you had three surgeries to stop seeing double, then one and a half years of vision therapy?
  • you could never drive again?
  • your short-term memory continued to be frustratingly compromised?
  • you were still paying off more than a million dollars in medical bills, nine years after your crash and injuries (and after your insurance paid)?

It’s doubtful that any answer could surpass Joan Miller’s remarkably courageous and positive response to the June 9, 1999, three-car crash that changed her life and her husband John’s life forever. She views their crash, caused by a 24-year-old drunk driver with a .20 BAC in Ogden, Utah, as “a gift from God,” enabling her to touch so many more people than she otherwise could have. She’s also determined to make the most of it.

Faced with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), and countless challenges that would make many people give up, Joan shares her incredible attitude and advice for others: “If you want to have a pity party, don’t invite me. I don’t have any presents, but I do have God-given gifts. If you want to climb through the tunnel of rehabilitation, I’m at the end.”

“With a brain injury, the person you once were before is gone,” she says. “There are still remnants of that personality, but it’s all about finding your focus, negotiating your new life.” Thanks to her indomitable strength and perseverance, a fabulous optometrist and the invaluable support of family and true friends, she’s stronger than ever now. Most of all, she credits her recovery to John, her “knight in shining armor,” whose own injuries included a punctured lung and two broken legs.

In a different hospital, with a leg cast from his ankle to his thigh, John wasn’t able to see Joan initially. After enduring four days in a coma, two weeks in ICU and almost two months in a rehabilitation facility, she still didn’t understand what “all the hullabaloo” was about. When she finally got home, she didn’t remember her husband’s name or their dog Wile E’s name. She feels lucky that she still doesn’t remember the crash.

Since her visual and motor problems prevent her from driving, the Portland, Oregon resident depends on the TriMet LIFT, a transit service for disabled people who can’t use the regular bus system. She sits at the back, so she can’t see what’s coming from the front of the lift. “My body still remembers and still seizes up when I’m travelling in too much traffic or see too much going on,” Joan says.

A passionate victim advocate for MADD and brain injured people, and a frequent speaker in schools and on victim impact panels, Miller co-founded BIRRDsong, the nonprofit Brain Injury Information Referral and Resource Development, for which she is also secretary. “It’s a domino effect,” she says. “You help one person, and that person helps others.

“My priority is finding my true purpose and helping people in whatever way I can,” Joan says. “There’s a reason for me to be here on earth. It ain’t to take up space but to help others.”

Although doctors caution that her brain is still like a bundle of egg shells, and she must be extra careful to avoid hitting it, she only complains about her lower energy level and how quickly she tires. But anyone who knows Joan can easily confirm that she has more energy and drive in her little finger than most of us have in our entire body.

Her message to others: “Cherish the ones you love, and never leave home without telling them that you love them.” Her e-mail ID: joanwins. Her e-mail signature: MADD Advocate in Action. It doesn’t get more positive than that.


Read the most recent issue of MADDvocate Magazine, featuring an article about coping with traumatic brain injuries.

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