Mercy Cuts to the Bone
by Dr. Steven Miller, orthopedic surgeon
Tired, worried, and with dark circles around her eyes, Kelly Amato arrived at the Orthopedic Clinic at Wheeling Hospital without an appointment and with X-rays in hand. She asked me for my help. I immediately responded, "Yes, of course!" What happened afterwards was incredible — not just due to the outcome, but also for how it transpired and how it continues to inspire me spiritually.
It was a crisp September day in 2005 in West Virginia. Standing before me, Kelly took a deep breath to calm herself before beginning to explain that her daughter, Karlie, had fallen during cheerleading practice the night before and had suffered a shoulder fracture. I could see distress in Kelly's face. Her daughter was badly hurt, and Kelly knew it. She felt it, as only a mother could, and there was nothing she could do to fix it or make it better.
At the time, Kelly was an oncology nurse at Wheeling Hospital. I have witnessed firsthand the care and compassion she bestows upon her patients. Under very trying circumstances, she displays a degree of strength and grace I doubt I could ever muster. I knew right away when I saw her in my clinic I wanted to help her, just as she has helped so many others.
Kelly came to me looking for some definitive advice. Though Karlie had been taken to the emergency room the night before — just after her accident — the course for treatment of her injury was still in the works.
An Horrific Injury
I reviewed Karlie's X-rays. Her fracture was horrific. The entire top of her humerus was broken off and displaced to the side of the main shaft of the humerus bone. I knew right away Karlie needed surgery. I explained to Kelly that it would be crucial to reset the bone and put it back into alignment. Without doing this, it would be doubtful Karlie's shoulder would ever be useful again. After hearing my preliminary assessment, Kelly left to get Karlie so I could conduct a thorough examination of her.
I quietly contemplated how I would get that bone back in place. I felt certain I would need to make a large incision in order to gain access to the fracture site. In my mind's eye, I started to plan out the operation and the instruments I would need. I made a mental note to myself to reserve a specialized piece of equipment called a "C-arm" fluoroscopic X-ray machine for the operating room.
Kelly returned with Karlie and Karlie's father, Jim. With the skill of a veteran nurse, Kelly carefully helped Karlie up onto the exam table. Jim stood back. I noticed he held rosary beads. As a father of three children, I was acutely aware of the couple's anguish and I wanted to help.
Karlie's shoulder was black and blue, swollen, and deformed, and her arm dangled lifelessly by her side. Still, somehow she remained calm and collected. I was impressed by her demeanor. She reminded me of my youngest daughter, Allison, and I wondered how I would react to her having such a fracture. At the conclusion of my exam, I immediately scheduled Karlie's surgery for that day.
'I Will Need It'
It must have seemed like an eternity of waiting to the Amato family when the call for surgery finally came. I hung up the phone and began making my way to the operating room when Jim approached me. He informed me he would be in the hospital chapel during the surgery praying to the late Pope John Paul II to intercede on my behalf and that God would guide me. He revealed he felt a special devotion to John Paul II, whom had recently died. Because I still felt uncertainty about Karlie's upcoming surgery, I heartily thanked Jim. "Good," I told him. "I will need it!"
Jim later shared with me the prayer he made in the chapel. Kneeling before the crucifix, Jim prayed: Dear Blessed John Paul, please help my daughter. Please intercede before our Blessed Mother and the Divine Mercy of Jesus imploring they grant to Dr. Miller and his surgical staff not only wisdom and knowledge, but the skills needed to complete this surgery in the least invasive method possible. Please John Paul, please help our daughter.
Jim told me later he had no idea where those words "least invasive method possible" came from. He knew we would have to make a large incision.
Comforted by a Crucifix
Wheeling Hospital is a Catholic institution. A crucifix hangs on the wall of each operating room. I have always found this comforting. In fact, I have a habit of looking at the crucifix during surgery, especially in times of uncertainty. Inevitably an answer seems to come to me.
Even as Karlie was being prepared for surgery I was still unsure how I was going to fix her fracture. I knew it could not be left as it was. Somehow, someway, I needed to reposition the end of the bone back into place and stabilize it with a metal pin or screw.
Karlie appeared anxious as she was laid on the operating table. The attending nurses spoke to her compassionately and were able to calm her down. After she was administered the anesthesia, we got to work. With scalpel in hand, I was prepared to make the incision that would allow me access to the fracture. To my surprise, I could not make the incision! Something inside me told me to wait. Perhaps it was the unblemished skin on her shoulder. Perhaps it was a memory of my own daughter in her sleeveless prom gown. I just couldn't shake the image of how the incision I was about to make would be prominently on display when Karlie wore a prom gown or a wedding dress.
I could not make the large incision. I just could not do it! One minute went by and then another. My colleagues in the operating room looked at me, wondering and waiting. Almost instinctively, I turned to the cross on the wall and whispered, "What do I do here, Lord?"
A Procedure Not According to Plan
What happened next was then — as it remains today — a wonder. I heard a voice in my mind telling me clearly what to do, and I did not hesitate. I immediately knew it was the answer I sought and desperately needed. I abandoned the original plan, and tried something I had never done before or since.
Utilizing the specialized X-ray equipment, I made a tiny incision on the skin over the facture site. Then, I inserted the handle end of a spoon-like instrument over the broken end of the bone and under the ball of the shoulder above. Then, with a downward force, similar to a shoehorning, I was able in one stroke to flip the broken ball of the shoulder up on top of the shaft of the broken humerus.
To the amazement of everyone in the operating room, including me, it appeared on X-ray as perfect, absolutely perfect! A collective "ahh!"came from the group. I then drilled a small, smooth pin across the line of the fracture for stabilization. We then applied a small bandage and a sling, and — just like that — the operation was complete!
Afterward, I felt a huge sense of relief. But beyond that, I sensed that something remarkable had occurred. I felt that through my hands, a power I did not understand had performed something extraordinary. Once I was sure Karlie was safely in a recovery room, I went straight to her parents to tell them the exciting news of how her bone was restored to perfect alignment with no more than a quarter-inch incision. Karlie's father solemnly nodded his head as I related the events of the surgery.
"I knew my prayers to John Paul would help you!" he said
A Pope of Mercy Was Present t the hospital the next morning, Kelly and Jim were with Karlie in her room. Karlie was sore, but she was raring to go home. After examining her, I asked Jim if he wouldn't mind telling me what, specifically, he had prayed for in the chapel during the surgery. He shared with me his faithful prayer request to Blessed John Paul II. Then I asked him if he knew what time it was when he left the chapel.
"Sure I do," he said. "It was 6:40."
I sat down, astonished. I shared with him that it was 6:40 when I had paused during surgery, looked at the Crucifix on the wall, and asked for God's guidance. For both Jim and me, this served as confirmation of the exact moment of Pope John Paul's powerful intercession.
Then, later in the day, after describing the events surrounding Karlie's surgery to my wife, Carolyn, I received further, indisputable confirmation of John Paul II's presence. As Carolyn listened, I couldn't help noticing her smile. When I finished, she stood up and said, "You need to see what came in the mail today!" She retrieved an 8 x 10 envelope from the Marian Helpers Association in Stockbridge, Mass., home of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. She handed me the envelope, and to my surprise, inside was a beautiful 8 x 10 photo of Blessed Pope John Paul II in support of his canonization!
An Unshakable Faith
Since the time of Karlie's surgery, Kelly has continued to work with, and minister to, the sick and dying in her profession as an oncology nurse. Jim and I have become good friends, and we correspond regularly. I am grateful for Jim's faithfulness and friendship. He has helped me to deepen my faith and has taught me much about the power of prayer.
Karlie Amato healed perfectly and went on to become a cheerleader and honor student at Shadyside High School in Shadyside, Ohio. She is now in her third year at Walsh University and is enrolled in the nursing school. She is considering a career either as a nurse practitioner in orthopedic surgery or as an orthopedic surgeon. In the summer of 2012, as part of a trip sponsored by Walsh University, she traveled to Medjugorje and Rome. In Rome, she wept at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II.
I, too, become emotional when I think back to the day of Karlie's surgery. I feel humbled that I was a player in what I believe was a miraculous event. It inspired me to take a deeper look at my spirituality, my faith, and my commitment to the Lord. My belief in intercessory prayer and the power of prayer in general have been confirmed and strengthened.
To this day, I pray before each surgery. I pray for clarity of thought and for our Lord's guidance. I pray that I may perform a perfect surgery and that each patient recovers well and without complications. I pray for the intercession of Blessed John Paul II and of Our Lady and to our Lord Jesus that I may be allowed to continue with my work, if it is His will. I give thanks for my faith and all the blessings I have received.
I am truly grateful to Blessed John Paul II for his intercession during Karlie Amato's surgery and for inspiring all of us to never give up faith in the Lord.
Dr. Steven Miller wishes to thank Karlie Amato and her parents, Jim and Kelly Amato, of Shadyside, Ohio; his wife, Carolyn, who continues to inspire his faith; his son, Benjamin L. Miller; and Stephanie Jones and Jenny Dunn for their kind assistance with proofreading and editing.