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Patient Stories

Rescued from the Rubble

Nov. 15, 2022

When Travis Miller was injured in a 14-story building collapse, his odds of survival were almost zero. But because he was airlifted to UC Medical Center, he received access to a world of multispecialty, advanced trauma care that not only saved his life but positioned him to thrive.

"Rescued From the Rubble" - Travis Miller's Story

The morning of Dec. 9, 2020, started like any other for construction worker Travis Miller—he headed to a site in Adams County, Ohio, ready for a day’s work.

He hardly worked an hour.

The 14-story powerhouse collapsed, trapping Travis and his four coworkers under tons of steel, concrete and debris.

“Travis’ friend called and told me he was trapped…they thought no one could have survived that accident,” Alissa Miller, Travis’ wife, said. “In my mind, Travis was dead.”

Jason McMullan, MD, and Edward Otten, MD, UC Health emergency medicine physicians and members of the Hamilton County Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team, received the call to help extract and provide medical care to those trapped in the collapse.

“I remember that day vividly,” Dr. McMullan recalled. “But I wasn’t prepared for the scale and the scope of what we were about to encounter. It’s a once-in-a-career kind of call.”

The rubble was approximately two and a half stories tall. Rescue workers had to climb over beams and mangled concrete to reach the space where they found Travis. It was about as big as the space under a folding table.

“I had to crawl under, kind of superman style with my head sideways, to reach him,” Dr. McMullan said. “It was a miracle that the firefighters were able to find him. Everything came together for his best chance for survival.”

Because Dr. McMullan was able to be on-site with the first responders, he was able to provide the highest-quality trauma care to stabilize Travis for transport.

At the same time, Alissa got in her car and started driving in a hysterical haze, 8 miles in the wrong direction, before she got another call.

“It was a Manchester Fire and Rescue worker who had Travis on the line. A rescue worker had his cell phone held up to his two-way radio, and it was Travis on the other side,” Alissa remembered. “At that point I had thought Travis was most likely deceased, so once they called me, I was a bit stunned. He sounded like he was dying, like he wasn’t going to be with us for very long. He told me he loved me and our kids more than anything in the world, and he wanted me to say it back.”

Alissa didn’t want to—she didn’t want to admit that she wouldn’t get to see or speak to her husband ever again. Because of her clinical nursing background, Alissa changed the subject and started assessing him over the phone, asking if he could see any blood, if his chest hurt, if he had anything on top of his body. Travis had been trapped under the rubble for hours.

“I remember it all, really,” Travis said. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it. There were so many things that went through my mind...the only thing I kept thinking about was, ‘Am I going to make it home for one more Christmas?’—I just wanted one more.” 

Alissa arrived on scene hours before Travis was rescued, and was speaking the whole time with emergency crews, the Adams County Sheriff and with the helicopter teams.

Dr. McMullan made sure that Alissa was able to speak to Travis before takeoff.

“He was swollen, very white, but barely awake and alert,” she recalls. “I kissed his arm—the only place I could get to—and told him that I would see him at the hospital when he arrived. I told him that I loved him.”

It was a 20-minute ride from the site in Adams County, but Dr. McMullan and his team weren’t sure Travis would make it there.

 “If he did make it there, they gave him like, a 3% chance—that’s what we were working with,” Alissa said.

Arriving at UC Medical Center

Travis did survive. Flight crews took him to UC Medical Center—home to Cincinnati’s only adult Level 1 trauma center, uniquely staffed and equipped to handle the most severe injuries.

“Once he got here, with everything under the same roof, it means that whatever he needs, whenever he needs it, it’s available,” Dr. McMullan explained.

That meant access to the best care from the critical moment patients enter UC Health’s emergency department, all through recovery and a return to life:

  •  shock resuscitation unit, staffed by clinicians at the ready to stabilize critically ill and injured patients
  • Six subspecialty ICUs, including the region’s only adult burn center
  • 60+ critical care physicians and hundreds of highly trained nurses, therapists and other clinicians
  • Surgeons in the areas of orthopaedics, trauma and neurotrauma, plastic surgery and more

A complete range of inpatient and outpatient services for catastrophic injury recovery at the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care

Travis remembers the entire helicopter ride, though it felt to him like it was all slow motion.

“I vaguely remember landing up [at UC Medical Center],” he said, “but I don’t remember much after that.”

Travis went into emergency surgery with major wounds on his side and on his back, and other injuries resulting in compartment syndrome—when pressure increases and restricts blood flow, damaging muscles and nerves—which complicated things, and ended in Travis losing one leg at the hip, and the other below the knee in amputation.

“I was just crying,” Alissa said. “But they told me that this is one of the beautiful things about trauma—they don’t remember any of this, only we do—if you can find any beauty in that. Even though it’s horrific for families, Travis wouldn’t remember any of it. At least one person doesn’t have to remember.”

Two Months in the ICU

Alissa remembers it all—all 30-some days Travis was in a coma, on a ventilator, with a tracheostomy, barely able to communicate by weakly and shakily writing on a whiteboard.  She spent long days and even longer nights by Travis’ side, her faith never wavering.

Vanessa Nomellini, MD, UC Health trauma and surgical critical care physician, cared for Travis during the two months he stayed in the surgical intensive care unit, and continues to stay in touch with the family as a friend.

“It was very clear to us early on that the fight that he had was going to be a big part of his care and in his recovery,” she said of Travis’ spirit. “He remembers waking up, he remembers Alissa being at the bedside—it was a big shock to him, looking down. He asked Alissa, ‘will you still love me like this?’, and as soon as she said ‘yes,’ it was game on for him.”

Care team members—from nurses, surgeons and therapists to the support staff cleaning—all went above and beyond for Travis and Alissa, acting as bright moments in their darkest days.

“One of the doctors got me by myself once, and he asked me if I had eaten anything,” she remembered specifically. “He didn’t have to care about me or if I ate—I’m sure he’s a very busy man, but he was genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. He looked at me and told me Travis is going to be OK, and he gave me his personal phone number, telling me to call him if I had any trouble.”

Even though her time spent at UC Medical Center posed some of the toughest days, Alissa looks back on it fondly.

“They all went above and beyond,” Alissa said of the UC Medical Center teams. “It was like a big puzzle—every rescue person, every doctor, every nurse, every respiratory therapist, every person who came in as a student to train, everyone who came in to change the garbage who just smiled nicely—it makes a difference. They made sure I had what I needed, and they took care of Travis like he was one of their own. They gave me a great, thorough rundown every single day, and they were all so kind to me.”

Rehabilitation at Daniel Drake Center

On Feb. 4, 2021, Travis and Alissa moved to Encompass Health within UC Health’s Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care, so Alissa could be at Travis’ side every step of the way. During rehabilitation, Travis had to relearn every aspect of his day-to-day life, including how to walk with two prosthetic legs.

“When I got to rehab, I was still bedfast for 30 days,” Travis remembered. “Once I was able to get up, Dr. [Holly] Pajor was able to rush a prosthetic for me. I was able to stand up for the first time on March 9, I believe, but I didn’t realize how weak I was. It was very, very hard to start taking those steps again.”

Holly Pajor, DO, physical medicine and rehabilitation physician at UC Health, started Travis’ rehabilitation care from the bedside in the ICU, just three weeks after he arrived, and after both limbs had been amputated.

“When he arrived at rehab, we weren’t able to do much with him out of his bed because he still had restrictions,” Dr. Pajor recalled, “but this man is motivated.”

After Dr. Pajor and Travis worked to build back his strength, Travis was discharged and sent home to continue outpatient rehab. All the while, Travis was in his wheelchair doing yardwork, cleaning up around the house and taking care of his kids. 

Ninety-five days after being trapped under a 14-story building, Travis returned home to his family in Grayson, Kentucky with Alissa.

“We had Christmas when I got home,” Travis said proudly. “It was a lot of falls; a lot of pain and anguish, but here I am. I have a great life—the only thing different is my legs, but as far as life, it goes on. I go to the gym three days a week on my own, I swim, hunt, we’ve been fishing once this year. I did a race—I didn’t come in first, but I finished it. I’m very active—as long as I’m doing something or trying to do something. I at least try.”

In his continuum of care, he traveled to Chicago to see a specialist for the prosthetic on the right side—one that included two joints—his hip and his knee.

“This was with the help of David Rotter and his amazing team in Joliet, Illinois,” Alissa said. “Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are. His talent plus Travis’ drive and determination to live is the reason he walks.”

Travis walked on two prosthetic legs—a right hip disarticulation and left leg below the knee—exactly four months after leaving rehab.

“It takes people 6 months to a year to be able to master walking with a double-joint prosthetic like that, and not to mention on two prosthetics,” Dr. Pajor explained. “But I got a text from his prosthetist within five minutes of Travis having this prosthetic, and he was walking between the parallel bars. It was just so inspiring to see.”

Alissa and Travis continually sing the praises of their UC Health care teams—from their meeting Dr. McMullan at the helicopter, to their texting with Dr. Nomellini to share milestones even today.

“’Thank you’ is not enough,” Travis and Alissa said. “We cry happy tears every day. Without these people, the gifts they’ve been given, their ongoing education—Travis wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

July 2022- Travis’ Return to UC Medical Center

Even though this is just a memory for Travis and Alissa now, their journey has been nothing short of incredible—from the 3% chance of survival Travis had, as he was loaded into the helicopter—to Friday, July 1, as he walked into the halls of UC Medical Center to be reunited with the trauma care team that saved his life.

“It was kind of a bittersweet moment, I would say,” Travis said about coming back to thank his care team in the UC Medical Center Surgical Intensive Care Unit. “They got me to where I’m at now, and it makes me feel good to let them see where I’m at to hopefully make them feel a little better.”

For the care team, seeing Travis walk in those doors on his own did more than make them feel a little better.

“I fully credit his recovery and how well he’s doing today to his will, his fight—he’s just somebody that doesn’t quit,” Dr. Nomellini shared. “Travis aways says, ‘I knew I was going to get there’—but there was a chance he wasn’t. But with each milestone, he’s recognized that he’s pretty much unstoppable.”  

In October 2022, Travis is still pushing the envelope—hiking two miles with Alissa at their favorite spot in their hometown. He admits it was hard, but he did it on his own, and that’s all that matters to him.

“This is all a miracle,” Alissa said, praising the UC Health care teams all the while. “We do believe that God intervened that day and worked through the talented and educated individuals and put him where he was close to a place like UC Medical Center where it could be the best-case scenario. We are absolutely blessed to receive the best care possible.”

With the help of his UC Health care team, Travis is quite literally a walking miracle—coming back to give to the miracle workers who, for them, miracle work is just another day on the job.

“Without UC Health, I wouldn’t be here. I honestly believe there is no other place I could’ve been taken to,” Travis said. “They never gave up—at all. It didn’t matter what time of day, what day of the week it was—they were there. They never gave up on me.”