Recovering with class

Reporter Miles O’Brien Lost an Arm but None of His Admirable Spirit or Wit

Is there such a thing as adding compliment to injury? There should be. Consider the case of Miles O’Brien.

As a veteran science and aerospace reporter, Miles O’Brien has worked the space beat for decades. He toils down here, yet his mind floats up there. In a pinch, he’d rather talk NASA than NSA. He’s been a pilot since he was a teenager.

Yet last week Miles landed hard back on earth in a way he couldn’t have predicted from any altitude. On Tuesday he became news himself, revealing to the world—quietly, modestly, in a blog post—that he was the victim of a freak accident so unlikely it belongs in the soapiest episode of Grey’s Anatomy or an article in the “Drama In Real Life” section of an old Reader’s’ Digest.

A week earlier, while he was stacking equipment on his way back from reporting on Japan’s radioactive Fukushima power plant, a hard case fell on his left arm. He was injured—kinda, sorta, barely—and he brushed it aside. “It hurt,” but he “wasn’t all ‘9/11’ about it.” It wasn’t a nuclear accident or an earthquake or a tsunami. Soon after, though, his arm became discolored and numb. His doctors insisted on immediate surgery and when Miles woke, his forearm was gone.

I’ve met Miles only once, at a wedding reception a few years ago, but now we have something far rarer in common. When I was a kid, while touring East Berlin—back when there was an East Berlin—I got my left foot stuck in an escalator in Alexanderplatz. A few hours later, thanks to blowtorches and chainsaws and East German soldiers and the U.S. Embassy, my foot was released, and I along with it. I was lucky; but over the next month, the nerve damage to what remained of my big toe was too much. It defected.

Just days after Miles lost his arm, he joked about his injury. “A flesh wound,” he called it. When he learned his official diagnosis—acute compartment syndrome—he mocked it a little. (“I had to Wiki it.”) He found a silver lining, too: “If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to buy some really cool new gadgets.” He even went for the pun. “Life is all about playing the hand that is dealt you. I would love somebody to deal me another hand right about now—in more ways than one.”

My mother reminds me that she and I had this conversation as they were wheeling me into the emergency room on the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. “Is there anything you need from me?” she asked. “Yeah, there is,” I’m said to have said, “Promise me you won’t go on any escalators.” Everyone laughed. Perhaps nervously, to make me feel better. But I was serious. Occasionally I make jokes for a living these days. I hadn’t made one back then.

Almost three decades later, I have four toes on my left foot—no big deal. And yeah, sometimes I’ll joke about it now: “This little piggy went to heaven,” I’ll say. “This little piggy brought down communism.” “Eenie, meenie, miney, muh-oh.”

But to see Miles take something so devastating in stride, so quickly, with such humor, makes even the knee-jerk jokester in me awestruck, and jealous. I look at how Miles has responded to his life changing so drastically, and I tell myself, I wish I could do that.

Miles O’Brien has been studying space for decades. Perhaps that’s where he gets his sense of perspective. Even the big stuff is small stuff. No sweat. “I’m sure I can cope just fine,” he tells people. “If I need your help, I promise I will ask.”

Of course he’ll cope. He won’t need our help. Yet despite his pleas, and perhaps because of his puns, I want to give him a hand.