One man's run-in with a tree saves his life and possibly the lives of future generations.
Both men were expert skiers. It was hardly the first time they had traversed the deep backcountry of Utah’s Powder Mountain, the most expansive ski area in the country. They had been given another perfect day of pristine conditions, and Chris Miloe and his friend, Harold Kaplan, MD, were on their second highline traverse.
Miloe considered himself lucky: At 67, he was feeling great. He was an adventurist who loved all kinds of sports—skiing (even heli-skiing!), surfing, snorkeling, golf, tennis, dirt bikes … you name it. All his life he’d lived for the challenges and thrills of the great outdoors—across the country and around the world.
It had been a rocky few years with several health setbacks. But Miloe was on the mend, it seemed. And on this Friday in February 2011, a beautiful bowl of fresh, silky, unblemished powder was calling.
So was a sizeable pine tree with a jagged, carelessly sawn branch protruding directly across the trail. Miloe hadn’t seen it coming.
“I have no idea why I’m still alive,” Miloe says today. “I must have nine lives.”
After all, it seemed his luck was wearing thin about eight years ago when one day, out of the blue, he collapsed after surfing. When he stood, he couldn’t walk. Surgery on his back at Torrance Memorial followed, but the pain continued and a second back operation ensued a year later.
Another 12 months came and went, and along with another year, another challenge—when Miloe suffered a stroke. Although mild, it took away the central vision in his right eye and required more time away from favorite pastimes.
There was recovery and then rehab, and then, almost unbelievably, another challenge: Removal of a seemingly innocuous black dot the size of a pencil tip (it was lead from a pencil incident as a kid) above his left eyebrow led to an abnormal pathology report.
Thank goodness Miloe’s wife, Barbara, hadn’t given up urging him for years to get the dot removed. The plan was to biopsy the area for a closer look. But this would have to wait. Something more dire was lurking.
THE ANGEL TREE
Miloe hadn’t seen it coming—figuratively or literally. That fateful day on Utah’s Powder Mountain, the third time would be the charm.
“Harold and I had taken that traverse once to a new powder bowl, and it was so good, we decided we had to go back and do it again,” he remembers.
On the traverse, he glanced back for only a second at Dr. Kaplan. And then bam!, he was dangling like a lifeless ragdoll over the protruding branch. The javelin-like limb ripped open Miloe’s bicep, jammed into his ribs and knocked him unconscious.
As luck would have it, the “Angel Tree,” as Miloe’s family and friends now call it, also saved his life. Rescued by ski mobile and later taken to the local emergency room, an X-ray and CT scan of his ribs gave the treating doctor pause.
“Mr. Miloe,” she said, “your arm and ribs are going to heal just fine. But your CT scan shows a large mass above your heart. It’s the largest aneurysm of the ascending aorta that we’ve ever seen in a live person. Without surgery, you’ll be dead in a month.”
RECONSTRUCTING THE FUTURE
Miloe turns 70 this year. Considering his family history, he’s lucky to reach that milestone. Both grandfathers (at ages 35 and 51), his father (at 56) and his father’s sister (at 65) all died instantly of heart attacks. No one had known why.
Thanks to Miloe’s ski accident, now they know. And the future he once feared for himself—and possibly that of his children and grandchildren—looks much different today. People with a predisposition for forming aneurysms are commonly diagnosed with thoracic aortic disease, and Miloe feels certain this disease—his diagnosis—is what caused the untimely deaths of his father, grandfathers and aunt.
From Utah, Miloe was given the green light to travel home for emergency surgery to repair the aneurysm at Torrance Memorial’s Melanie and Richard Lundquist Cardiovascular Institute. Miloe’s son (Paul), Paul’s stepfather (Gene Naftulin, MD) and Miloe’s physician (James Deutsch, MD) had researched through the night for the best aortic team and hospital in the country and had concluded Torrance Memorial was the #1 option. Although Miloe himself was just beginning to learn more about his condition, he was confident he’d be in the best hands there.
An aortic aneurysm, he learned, is the bulging of the walls of the aorta, the body’s largest artery and the main pathway for oxygenated blood pumped by the heart. The danger is that, like a balloon that is overinflated, the aneurysm has the potential to burst—and this can be deadly.
John Stoneburner, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Torrance Memorial, says it’s common for aortic aneurysms to be discovered by accident, just like Miloe’s. “Most people would never know they had one because there are usually no symptoms.”
Dr. Stoneburner stresses the importance of relying on family history to determine risk. “If you had a first-degree relative—a parent or a sibling—with a heart condition, indicating you are pre-disposed, tell your doctor so that you can be properly screened. To look forward to your future, you must look back at your history.”
Once an aneurysm is discovered (usually via echocardiogram, CT scan or chest X-ray), doctors determine the best course of action. “Size is important,” says Dr. Stoneburner. “Some growth is normal, so an aneurysm should be monitored annually.”
Surgery is recommended when aneurysms grow large enough to have a significant risk of tearing. A normal aorta is about the diameter of a garden hose. Miloe’s aneurism was massive and had bulged to nearly four times that size—the size of a baseball.
The seven-hour operation to remove his aneurysm was a success. The cutting-edge procedure involved dropping his temperature to 12º while the affected part of the aorta was cut away—necessary to guard against cardiac arrest.
Tubular Dacron® fabric was sewn in to replace the section of the aorta that was removed. The material grafts to the affected area and is designed to last a lifetime.
Miloe praises his treating team at the hospital. “Their methods, monitoring, caring—it’s incredible what they do for you,” he says.
Within a week, he was released. Months of therapy followed through the hospital’s Delpit Cardiac Rehabilitation program as he steadily regained strength and stamina.
Almost unbelievably, later that year, once he was healthy enough for a biopsy on his forehead, there was yet another diagnosis. Melanoma. Lucky (again) for Miloe, he was able to undergo surgery, and the melanoma was successfully removed.
It had been a long road and he couldn’t wait to get back on track. “It was, ‘How much time do I get with my family,’ and then, ‘How much sporting stuff do I get to do?’”
Miloe ticks off the trips he has taken since. Skiing on Hokkaido Island in Japan; surfing in Indonesia, Costa Rica and Cabo San Lucas. A trip to Africa with Barbara is coming up.
He admits the waves he surfs get smaller, and time on the slopes is less. But he says, “I’ll keep going as long as I can. With good family, friends and support—you will come back. I’m proof of that.”
THE PRESENT IS A GIFT
The day of this interview, Miloe has recently returned from a 10-day surfing trip to the Dominican Republic. He’s busy in his office at Albitz/Miloe & Associates Inc., a Registered Investment Adviser firm in Torrance. His son and wife work alongside him, and today his granddaughter—one of four grandchildren—is there too, happily assisting as needed.
Miloe will celebrate his 70th birthday on the same day this June that his daughter celebrates her 40th birthday. His whole life, he says, the cards have fallen in his favor.
The tree limb that saved his life is perched on a shelf in his office like a trophy. It’s a constant reminder of his good fortune.
“There’s no way I hit that tree by accident. I was injured just enough to find the aneurysm, but I wasn’t killed or permanently injured. It’s miraculous.”
For now, Miloe is keeping fingers crossed he gets lucky again at least at some point this unseasonably warm, dry winter. “If only it would snow! I’d really love to be skiing right now.”