This article was originally published in the November 2017 Princeton Echo.
The year is 1990. The time is 4 a.m. The place: Princeton. I am jolted awake by ambulances with sirens screaming, police cars, a trauma helicopter chop-chopping overhead. I live near the train station. I peer through the window at a cluster of flashing lights converging in the snowy night.
Not until the next day did I find out what had happened. A group of college sophomores, after partying all night, decided to fool around. They climbed on top of the little train, the Dinky, which shuttles people into Princeton from main line, about five minutes from campus. The student who was first to get on top of the train was wearing a metal watch on his left wrist. Eleven thousand volts of electric current surged through the watch into his body. Eleven thousand volts! That number I never forgot. Now he was dying.
In the weeks that followed extra security measures were put in around the Dinky. Then I moved back to Holland and I heard nothing more about the incident. But memories of that gruesome night always stayed with me. I often wondered about the poor student who had paid such a high price for a single moment of youthful indiscretion.
Then I read an interview with the title “A Shock” that led to insight. When reading the first line, my heart almost stopped: “We all have a reason to wake up in this world. For me it required eleven thousand volts.”
To my surprise, more than a quarter-century later, I had found BJ Miller, the hapless student. He had not died. On the contrary. In the accompanying photo was a lively, handsome, newly married man in his mid-40s. That unfortunate night had cost him three limbs, but he had not let it sidetrack him. “I decided I did not have to ‘overcome’ my situation but rather to play with it and be fed by it.” Less than two years later he played on the U.S. Open volleyball team in the Para-Olympic Games in Barcelona.
He changed his academic studies to art history, since art offered him consolation. “Artists give shape to what it means to be human, with all its blackness.” His study of the Chicago school of architecture changed his attitude about his prosthetics. At first he had covered them with pieces of foam and socks, but then he dropped all pretense and let the prosthetics speak for themselves — just as the unadorned structure of a building reveals its true nature. He returned to graduate from Princeton with his original classmates. He graduated in art history but eventually decided to go into medicine and earned a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco. “UCSF took a chance on me, seeing that my time as a patient had value,” he says.
BJ went into palliative care because “You’re encouraged to use your suffering as a motivator and teacher.” He became executive director of the pioneering Zen Hospice in San Francisco, a place where people prepare to die on their own terms. Since he had looked death in the eyes, it changed the way he looked at life. “I’m not afraid of death,” he says. “I’m more afraid of not living a full life. It is important to live so that you’re preparing for a good death.”
Today he continues to see patients at UCSF, is working on a guide to dying, and is raising seed money for the Center for Dying and Living, a program designed to find imaginative possibilities for palliative care. His 2015 TED Talk called “What Really Matters at the End of Life” now has more than 6 million views.
BJ continues to see dying patients and feels most at home among people in the last and most vulnerable stage of their lives. In his own words: “Every day I feel I have a head start when I meet patients and their families because they know I’ve been in that bed. That can take us to a much more trusting place more quickly.”
He finds it a challenge to guide them, as best as he can, toward the things that matter: smell, touch, food, art, love, friendship.
Eleven thousand volts jolted BJ Miller to life.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Charlotte,” was published in July in the U.S. She can be contacted at piadejong.com.