Miles O'Brien's life lesson cost his left arm

AP News
Posted: Mar 05, 2015 3:20 PM
Miles O'Brien's life lesson cost his left arm

NEW YORK (AP) — For television science correspondent Miles O'Brien, seeing on film the aftermath of the fluke injury that resulted in the amputation of his left arm above the elbow proved more difficult than he had anticipated.

He had an early look at the documentary, "Miles O'Brien: A Life Lost and Found," narrated by his friend, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. It premieres on CNN next Tuesday at 9 p.m.

"I was a little bit taken aback by how much it affected me emotionally," O'Brien said. "We all want to talk about this linear, analogue thing — here's when you grieve, here's when you do therapy, here's where you get back to work. But that's not how we all live."

O'Brien, 55, used to be CNN's top science correspondent until the network laid off his entire unit in 2008. He appears on the network as an occasional analyst, including Thursday during coverage of a plane slipping off the runway in New York, but does most of his freelance work now for PBS. He was on assignment for PBS in the Philippines in February 2014 when a heavy case of equipment fell on his left forearm.

It caused a nasty bruise, but not enough to stop O'Brien. He wanted to finish his stories and escape for a few days on a beach. The following night, his pain increased and O'Brien sought medical attention.

He was diagnosed with acute compartment system, a condition where his swollen muscles blocked blood flow in his arm. As he was getting ready for surgery, he searched the Internet for details on a diagnosis he had never heard before, and grew alarmed when words like "life-threatening" and "amputation" popped up.

Waking up after surgery, O'Brien's first inclination was that he caught a break. He could feel his left arm, the fingers on his hand. But it was an illusion, a phantom limb. His arm was gone.

He checked out of the hospital two days later and spent more than a week in a Philippines hotel, finishing his PBS stories. In an extreme form of denial, the divorced father of two told no one what had happened, even his children. They were dark days, and he told Gupta he even considered suicide.

"I had never lost an arm before," he said, drily. "I wasn't sure how that would go."

He'd never been the sort of person who reached out for help. And he wanted to prove to himself he could move forward and still do his job. When he found out about the amputation through a blog post O'Brien had written, Gupta was worried.

"I wasn't surprised by Miles' reaction," he said. "My concern was, was this his form of therapy or was he delaying the inevitable psychological crash by not dealing with it emotionally?"

O'Brien has tried to prove he can maintain his active life beyond work, with some missteps. He started running, but losing an arm affected his balance and he took some nasty spills. He broke his nose one time when he reached to break his fall with an arm that was no longer there. A woman who came upon him was horrified — look what happened to his arm! — and O'Brien had to explain he didn't lose it in the fall.

With the help of a prosthetic arm, he completed a 300-mile bike ride to honor his late sister, Gupta pedaling by his side. The licensed pilot has also been testing out how to fly again with his new disability.

He's learning about the oddities of pain in a phantom limb, how to work with new prosthetics and how to negotiate simple tasks — getting dressed, cutting a bagel — that he never had to think twice about before.

When filming the CNN special, O'Brien knew what Gupta was up to when his friend asked him to read on camera some of the emails that Gupta had sent to him a year ago. He was trying to make him cry. It worked.

The emotional journey, still not completed, has been one of self-discovery. He's learned that there's no weakness in asking for help. He realizes what loved ones and even strangers think of him, and it has been overwhelming.

"If I had to trade it — that arm for the knowledge and the love that I feel?" he said. "I'll go with the love. It's a hell of a way to learn a lesson."


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