GUNTER — On Thanksgiving Day, 2013, 2-year-old Matilda Miller will climb to her seat at the lunch table, plopping down right next to her 39-year-old father Josh. Later in the afternoon, they’ll walk to their neighbor’s house to pet the horses she calls Bob and Miranda (real names: Ladybug and Cooper). After darkness falls, Josh will tuck her in, tell her he loves her and kiss her forehead. And in that moment, Josh Miller will know far better than most what it means to be thankful.

GUNTER — On Thanksgiving Day, 2013, 2-year-old Matilda Miller will climb to her seat at the lunch table, plopping down right next to her 39-year-old father Josh. Later in the afternoon, they’ll walk to their neighbor’s house to pet the horses she calls Bob and Miranda (real names: Ladybug and Cooper). After darkness falls, Josh will tuck her in, tell her he loves her and kiss her forehead. And in that moment, Josh Miller will know far better than most what it means to be thankful.


On Thanksgiving Day, 2012, Josh Miller was in a wheelchair. He had just endured triple bypass, double angioplasty heart surgery, having come within hours of a catastrophic heart failure that would have landed him on a transplant list and very likely taken his life.


"We went in to vote, … I came home, got ready for work, and I had some chest pain. I thought maybe I was just frustrated at the voting choices," said Miller wryly. "I went to a hospital in Frisco, and … they kept me overnight. So I’m laying there and about 2 in the morning, I’m just watching the little heart monitor and it flatlines for 14 seconds."


Doctors in Frisco informed Miller that three arteries in his heart were more than 98 percent blocked, and another one, 60 percent. A near-deadly combination of unhealthy eating habits and a genetic condition meant Miller was facing open-heart surgery two years before his 40th birthday.


Acting on the advice of a friend, Miller’s wife Lauren had him transferred to the Heart Hospital Baylor Plano for surgery. Doctors performed the operation, but Miller’s heart was still too weak to provide adequate circulation. Baylor physicians turned to a state-of-the-art device called an Impella — a tiny catheter pump one-one-hundredth the size of a typical heart pump — to give the organ time to gain strength.


"Dr. (Kim) Jett came and talked to me after the Impella, and he said if his heart doesn’t start functioning on its own, he’s going to be looking at a transplant," said Lauren Miller. "I went home Saturday night, and I did not think we were bringing him home. You don’t think in your 30s you’re going to deal with something like that; to have to come home without them."


But the device worked. After 2 1/2 days, Josh Miller’s heart started pumping on its own.


"(The surgeon) said I was about four hours away from making the transplant list," said Josh Miller. "We’re very blessed."


The Millers returned home to Gunter the day before Thanksgiving, facing a long road to recovery but resolved to change their habits.


"When I was pregnant, I mean, we ate what we wanted. He’d eat what I ate, and the portion sizes were huge — fast food runs, just not a lot of healthy choices," said Lauren Miller. "(After the surgery) neither of us really knew where we needed to start evolving. Cutting sodium, I think, was the biggest dietary change, and fast food. We don’t do Taco Bell runs anymore."


For Josh Miller, who’s lost more than 70 pounds since the surgery, missing out on gorditas is a small price to pay to be able to spend time with his daughter.


"I never once feared death, I feared — it’s like, I always thought I’d be there. I wanted to give her the perfect childhood," Josh Miller said of Matilda. "She’s very smart and very lovable. Watching her grow up, she’s just fantastic."


"There’s a lot of excess spoiling now, I think," said Lauren Miller with a wink.


"I don’t spoil her, I lavish her with attention and affection," said her husband, laughing. "My first big gift this year, I got her a chess set. Spoiling her would have been a pony."


Until Josh Miller decides to cross the line from "lavish" to "spoil," they’ll just have to head down the street to get their equine fix; father and daughter walking hand-in-hand to see Bob and Miranda.