Young Life leader's recovery after stroke 'defies medical explanation'

mtheriault@adn.comOctober 12, 2013 

For the first time since the accident that nearly killed him, Trevor Millar glided through a thicket of lunch tables at South Anchorage High School, scanning the crowd for familiar faces.

He had last visited the high school in May. Then, he had been a track-and-field coach and the leader of Young Life, a popular Christian youth group. The kids flocked to him like a wholesome-but-cool older brother.

June brought the accident and the massive stroke that had wiped out much of one hemisphere of his brain.

But still, on a stormy October day, 30-year-old Millar was being pushed through the shiny halls in a wheelchair. His left side was still partly paralyzed. His head bore a scar where doctors had removed part of his skull.

At first no one looked up.

Finally Millar approached a table of boys drinking smoothies and eating takeout Chinese food.

Cooper Smykalski, Tyler Christiansen and Ben Hopp rose to their feet.

"Wanna see my scar?" Millar asked them, tracing the thick ropy line across his shaved head.

"Dang," said Smykalski.

Soon, a small horde of teenagers had gathered around Millar's wheelchair. A girl in Ugg boots squealed.

"I'm so glad you're better!" she said. "I was praying for you."

The bell summoned kids back to class. The lunchroom cleared.

"It makes me so happy to be back here," Millar said. "It also makes me sad I can't be the way I was."

A MASSIVE STROKE

On June 8, on one of the summer's first perfect blue-sky days, Millar was inner-tubing and jet-skiing on Finger Lake with two teens involved in his Young Life group.

A rope wrapped around his neck, nearly strangling him and damaging his trachea and carotid artery. It was no one's fault but his own, Millar said.

At first it looked like he'd be OK: He walked into Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and told doctors he was losing his ability to breathe.

Then his airway started to close. Doctors at Mat-Su and later Providence Alaska Medical Center decided his injuries were too serious to handle locally, so he was airlifted to University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

Two days later, while recovering from neck trauma in the intensive care unit, Millar suffered a massive stroke on the right side of his brain.

The damage was profound.

Doctors told his family that 90 percent of half of his brain had been destroyed, according to his mother, Casey Millar. His brain swelled so much that part of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure.

If Millar did survive, the medical team warned, he'd no longer be the Trevor they knew, the born leader and natural comic who had drawn hundreds of Anchorage teenagers to Young Life's signature mix of clean fun imbued with Jesus. He might never regain consciousness.

The Millar family, a large, tight-knit, Christian clan of second- and third-generation Alaskans, told everyone they knew to pray for Trevor. In the early hours of morning they gathered in a waiting room at the UW Medical Center with friends and sang a hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

A neurosurgeon, wiping sweat from his brow, came in to tell the family that Trevor had survived surgery.

"That was the beginning of our long journey," said Casey Millar.

'WE KNEW HE WAS IN THERE'

News of Trevor's accident went viral.

The request for prayer turned into a mantra posted across social media by a sprawling network of family friends and Young Life alums. Pray for Trevor became #prayfortrevor, a hashtag on Instagram and Twitter. It inspired a web site, prayfortrevor.com, selling skater-chic t-shirts and hats with profits going to the Millar family. The daughter of TV personality David Hasselhoff tweeted a picture of herself wearing a Pray for Trevor hat (the result of a Young Life connection.) More than 80,000 people have viewed the web site set up to chronicle his recovery. More than a thousand personal messages have been posted there.

Amidst the tidal wave of support, Trevor woke up. His sister and sister-in-law had painted his toenails pink.

He flashed a thumbs-up sign and smiled.

"We knew he was in there," Casey Millar said.

Millar grew up in a tight-knit, religious family in Anchorage. His parents were involved with Abbott Loop Community Church and owned a local coffee drive-through called Steamers. (They now attend Response, a church pastored by Millar's brother-in-law, Gabriel Webb.)

The oldest of five siblings, Trevor was an athletic kid who won the state track and field championship for hurdles in 2001, while attending the now-defunct Heritage Christian School. He attended college at Northwest University, a Christian college in Kirkland, Wash., and then returned to Anchorage, where in 2006 he got a job with Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry that's grown in popularity on high school campuses in recent years.

About 120 kids from the Dimond High and South High chapters attend weekly Young Life meetings. Some 40 Anchorage teenagers traveled to Colorado for summer camp this year.

Millar's job as the Anchorage-area director for the organization was to introduce teenagers to Christianity through recreation like sledding and hiking. He was in many ways the ideal candidate: a cool camp counselor-type who could build snow caves on Flattop as well as have deep conversations about "what's in the hearts" of teenagers, as he put it.

"Jesus is the message and friendship is the method," Millar says, offering a capsule description of the organization.

He estimates he's gotten to know hundreds of Anchorage teenagers through his years with Young Life.

Millar's recovery can't be explained by anything other than the tidal wave of prayer, his family says.

Dr. Charlotte Smith, a rehabilitation doctor at the top-ranked University of Washington Medical Center, with 27 years of experience, said she considers Millar's case one of a handful of "legitimate medical miracles" she's seen during her career.

"It defies medical explanation," she said.

'I GOT TO ATTEND MY OWN FUNERAL'

In September, after three months and three days in hospitals, Millar was well enough to return to Alaska.

An interim area director has been appointed to keep the Anchorage Young Life groups running. For Miller, recovery is now a full-time job.

There's physical and occupational therapy, pool therapy, music therapy and mirror therapy, designed to trick the damaged brain into re-seeing the left side of the body damaged by the stroke.

Later on the day he visited South High, Millar returned to his sister and brother-in-law's Lake Otis-area house for an acupuncture session.

"My great question is: Am I going to be like this forever?" he said. "If I am, I want to work on accepting it. If I'm going to get better I don't want to accept it, I want to work on progress."

Smith, his rehabilitation doctor, said the fact that Millar has already defied the odds is a good indication he'll make more progress.

"He's so off-the-chart of probability," she said. "I'd say don't write anything off."

Millar says his Christian faith is unshaken. He credits prayer for saving his life, though he has had moments of darkness and anger.

"There have been days where I thought it would have been easier to have died," he said.

He feels as if he hit the reset button on his life, he said. In both good and bad ways.

In September, a fund-raiser for Millar's long-term recovery costs drew more than 500 people to a South Anchorage church, where a slickly-produced video set to a Christian rock soundtrack showed the highlights of his life and told the story of the accident.

"I got to attend my own funeral," he said.

Little things, like seeing the mountains and eating at Moose's Tooth, delight him now. He's tormented by the things he can't do. Someday he wants to ski the Tour of Anchorage and run the Mayor's Marathon. He'd like to get married and start a family. He wants to look at the Chugach Mountains and think about the pleasure of fresh powder, not how hard it will be to get into the car in the snow.

But almost dying gives the people who love you a chance to tell you so, he said. And so many did. Millar said he is left with a sense of the rightness of his life's path.

"I'm at peace."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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