Road to recovery: JCA coach rallies from fight with pancreatitis
by Brandon Miller
bmiller@annistonstar.com
Sep 17, 2013 | 3164 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Jacksonville Christian Academy's Tommy Miller, standing by the field named for him, has battled pancreatitis. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Jacksonville Christian Academy's Tommy Miller, standing by the field named for him, has battled pancreatitis. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE – Tommy Miller always has enjoyed being the underdog. From when he was a 115-pound senior quarterback at Alexandria, through his most recent seasons as a Jacksonville Christian Academy coach, he always has appreciated the battle to overcome the odds.

It hasn’t been much fun lately, as his most significant battle has turned away from the athletic field and instead focused on his health. He was diagnosed with pancreatitis nearly six weeks ago, which began a rocky fight to restore his vitality.

He returned to the football field Friday night as head football coach for JCA’s game against Donoho, even though he said he’s not fully healthy yet. Still, it marked another step in a slow process back from an illness the 59-year-old wasn’t sure he would survive.

“You never know,” Miller said. “One day everything is fine and the next day it’s not. I could have as easily not been here today as I am here. Let people know how you feel about them. That’s one thing I’ve learned.”

Miller serves as JCA’s principal, athletics director and head coach of the girls and boys basketball teams and the football squad. His struggles began Aug. 11 while driving to Wellington First Baptist Church for a brotherhood breakfast, causing him to have to head back home.

The nausea quickly turned into unbearable pain in his abdomen. His wife, Frankie Miller, and their youngest daughter, Katy, carried him to their car before speeding off to Gadsden Regional, where Miller was taken back to the emergency room before Frankie could even park the car.

He said the diagnosis came quickly.

“They told me that my gallbladder was a mess. They said there were gallstones, and it had to come out. They said the gallbladder had set off pancreatitis,” Miller said. “They had to get it out of there, but they said they had to get the pancreas to settle down before they can get it. They tried to ease the pain some, but it was one heck of a battle with the pain.”

Miller said he was told he had a “very serious case” of the disease. His pancreas was so swollen it had “umbrellaed” over his intestines.

Miller was admitted to Gadsden Regional and had surgery Aug. 15 to remove his gallbladder. Before he returned to his Wellington home Aug. 25, the days following his gallbladder surgery proved difficult.

“They kept telling me he was a very sick man, and I didn’t know anything about pancreatitis except for there’s nothing they can do for it,” Frankie said. “Monday and Tuesday both nurses told me he wasn’t responding like he was supposed to. … But Tuesday night I realized he could die.

“It was horrible. You just think about your own kids, and we have a daughter that’s getting married in May. I thought, ‘You can’t leave me like this.’ I just did a lot of praying. It’s a sick feeling. I feel like I’m a part of him, he’s a part of me and there was nothing I could do.”

It was over that stretch that Miller said he realized “how hopeless we really are.”

“When we feel well, we feel like we can conquer the world, but at the point I was at, you realize that we don’t have any power,” he said. “There aren’t any tough or strong people, it all comes down to the grace of God.”

The family and community prayed. Miller said that around Aug. 21 or 22, he started to feel a little bit better. That continued steadily.

“I think the main thing was I was just there. I took off four weeks and helped him do daily things that he needed done,” said Frankie, who teaches at Alexandria High. “But I think the biggest thing was just him knowing that if he needed something I was there for him.”

His appetite was still small because his pancreas was so swollen, but the surgeon told him that was expected. Miller lost 30 pounds during his fight, but he said he has gained back four pounds. His energy is also coming back, but he said it is for only for hours at a time.

“They warned me about that, said I’d have to be patient. They said it’d be months at a minimum to recover,” Miller said. “That’s been the hardest thing. Once I’d get to feeling a little better, then the mental part would say I’d be feeling well enough tomorrow to do something else, but it didn’t happen.”

He found the energy to attend 45 minutes of JCA’s practices last Wednesday and Thursday with the intent to install the rest of the Thunder’s offense. The following day, the coach decided to return to the field for the Donoho game despite Frankie suggesting he sit in the press box.

“Friday night was the first time I had been on my feet for more than an hour. Those three hours took a toll on me,” Miller said. “I didn’t know if I was capable of it, but I felt like I could and I knew once the ballgame started then adrenaline would carry me for a while. The good thing was I was able to make it, but the bad thing was I paid for it.”

The following days reminded Miller he wasn’t back to full health yet. He didn’t do anything Saturday, but attended both church services for the first time since the ordeal Sunday. He said he felt terrible Monday but on Tuesday, he was back at school for several hours and attended practice.

“That’s been the pattern. I’ll feel better, do a few things and then I’ll have a bad day,” Miller said. “The inconsistency weighs on my mind. I feel better, but I don’t feel well like you want to. I know that if I’m not careful I’ll have a bad day again.”

Although Miller looks like himself, he said he isn’t back to normal. He said he feels about 40 percent, adding “what you see on the outside isn’t what I’m feeling inside.”

Still, Miller said he has been told he is improving. He said the surgeon at Gadsden Regional released him last week, and doctors at RMC Jacksonville have taken over his care. His white cell count is normal and liver enzymes are almost normal.

“I think he’s going to make it now,” Frankie said. “They told us it would be months before he’d be OK, but I feel confident now that he’ll be OK.”

All of this has given the Millers reason for optimism, although they realize the battle isn’t finished. The more his pancreas deflates, the more energy he’ll have and the healthier he’ll be. And although life is looking up for the man who does so much for JCA, he still remembers well what it’s like to be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.
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