Eleven years ago, Dan Miller tragically lost his toddler son, Thomas. But in his journey to deal with the boy’s death, he found his true calling – working as a paramedic and firefighter.
“It was a life-changing event,” Miller said at a going-away party for him Sunday night at Moe’s in Durango.
He will leave Upper Pine River Fire Protection District and Bayfield on Nov. 13 for Ankeny, Iowa, to be closer to family. He will work as a firefighter-paramedic for the Ankeny Fire Department.
Miller was watching football with his 2½-year-old son on Nov. 10, 2007, when the toddler began choking.
The family was living in a rural area about 6 miles from Bayfield. Miller had training as a lifeguard and began working to free the obstruction from his son, who had almost immediately passed out.
Now, Miller said he realizes that by the time the emergency crew arrived at his house, his son had already gone too long without oxygen to be saved.
The Upper Pine crew managed to get a heartbeat, but Thomas died about 15 minutes after being flown to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
After their son’s funeral, Miller and his wife, Heather, decided to take time off from work. They visited family and friends from Nebraska to Florida to help them deal with their loss.
“When we were headed back home, we had to pull off the road multiple times to let the waterworks out. We were just crying, but somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, I pulled off the road and I said, ‘Heather I want to be an EMT.’”
Miller said when he returned to Bayfield, he went to the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District office to thank paramedics and firefighters who had tried to save his son and to ask how he could pursue a career as a paramedic.
Rich Graeber, then Upper Pine’s chief, said an EMT class had just started. It had met three times, but he was able to get Miller in. In addition, Graeber told Miller that Upper Pine would pay for his classes.
“It’s a family. These are my brothers and sisters. I’ve been all over training people, Japan and Brazil, and it’s always the same,” Miller said.
The first class Miller attended was about how to clear difficult airways with children. That began Miller’s journey to help him understand what happened the night his son died.
The next year, when Miller earned his fire certification, he said he realized that not only had his effort to become a paramedic and firefighter helped him cope with the loss of his son, it also led him to his true calling.
“Basically, this horrible thing happened to me, and I just wanted to be there to help people when they’re most in need. I want to be there to help them,” he said.
Vito Ciccarelli, who joined Upper Pine in early 2017, credits Miller with helping him find his stride as a paramedic.
“As a brand new EMT, I wasn’t confident in my skills,” Ciccarelli said. “Dan spent hours in the back of an ambulance with me going through basic EMT skills.”
Ciccarelli said every opportunity during a shift, Miller, his supervisor, would ensure he was in a learning environment.
“He’s just a great EMT mentor who became a good, good friend. As an EMT, you’re on a lot of calls, and a lot of bad calls, and that’s where that true brotherhood comes out,” he said.
Miller is quick to help young EMTs deal with the trauma they see, and he is an advocate for mental health for young EMTs as they navigate the psychological demands of their jobs.
“Dan Miller is the heart and body of what you want in a firefighter and a paramedic,” Ciccarelli said.
Upper Pine River Fire Chief Bruce Evans said some people become paramedics and firefighters because that is what their parents do or because it is a good, stable job. But the reason that drove Miller into the field, painful as it was, created a great paramedic and firefighter.
“Dan Miller is a guy who came to work every day, and never once worried about himself,” Evans said.
Sometimes, life comes full circle. For Miller, that circle showed itself Saturday when his old car – the one he drove to Southwest Colorado 30 years ago – showed up at a firefighting training class.
It was an inexplicable coincidence. It was Miller’s last day with Upper Pine, and firefighters planned to remove doors from a beat up, old jalopy as part of a training exercise to re-create rescue skills needed during an auto accident.
Miller had gotten rid of the Honda Accord years ago. But Lon’s Automotive of Bayfield delivered the car for the drill.
“Dan had sold it, and randomly it shows up on his last day for the training,” Evans said. “It’s kind of freaky.”