From COVID to tracheostenosis, AC student dies of COVID complications

By Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
Austin College Senior Chris Miller died this month after suffering with COVID-19 and its complications for months.

When 21-year-old Chris Miller arrived on Austin College's campus in Sherman this fall, he was a 300 pound, 6 foot tall young man with his entire future ahead of him.

On Dec. 18, Miller died at the age of 22 after a months long battle with COVID-19 and complications.

Just before Christmas, Miller's sister Honoria Bush, his mother Esteria Miller, and the family attorney Paul Stafford reminisced about the young AC senior's life and his passing.

Bush said her brother was very active at college. A statement on AC's website said he was an active member and officer of Chi Delta Eta Fraternity, a little brother of Kappa Gamma Chi sorority, and member of Black Expressions.

"He was completing a major in Business Administration with a minor in Art," the statement said. 

He expected to graduate in 2021. 

“On behalf of the entire Austin College community, we extend heartfelt condolences to Chris’s family and offer prayers for comfort in their loss and grief,” Austin College President Steven O’Day said in that statement..

His mother said he had just received his cap and gown shortly before coming down with COVID-19. 

Chris Miller was just like all of the other college students across the country when he returned to AC in the fall to work toward his life's goals. He and others attended the college's convocation. Soon thereafter, he would become one of the 959 people in his age group to be confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 in Grayson County by Dec. 23. Because of the way the state of Texas handles death certificates related to COVID-19, public reports do not indicate how many of the 154 people who have died of the illness in Grayson County since the pandemic began have been in that same age group. Because he was not from Grayson County and did not die in Grayson County, Chris Miller's death would likely have not been reported with Grayson County COVID-19 related death statistics at all even though he might have been here when he caught the illness and certainly was here when he began fighting it.

That fight began a few days after convocation soon after a friend of Chris Miller's who had also attended the ceremony tested positive for the virus. His two roommates would eventually test positive for it as well. But all Chris Miller had reported was that he had lost his sense of taste and smell, two commonly known symptoms of COVID-19. 

Then, on Aug. 31, Miller's roommates found him in the floor struggling to breathe. His sister said he was first taken to the school nurse who noticed that oxygen concentration in Miller's blood was low so he was taken to Wilson N. Jones Regional Medical Center in Sherman. 

By Sept. 3rd, his sister said he required a BiPAP machine. That day, they transferred him to Texoma Medical Center in Denison because, "he would require more resources as far as his need for oxygen." 

The next day, the family received a call from the hospital saying he was going to need to be intubated. Then, they got another call saying that even with the ventilator at 100 percent oxygen, he oxygen levels were still in the 40s.

"So they requested that they put him on an (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine or ECMO which would drain the blood from Miller's veins, fill it with oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide, and then return it to his body.

"It actually bipasses the heart and lungs to get oxygenated blood to the rest of the body so the other organs and tissues don't die," explained Bush who is in her first year as a emergency room nurse. 

She said he was on that machine for almost two and a half months.

"In that time he did have two negative COVID tests so we were able to visit him," Bush said.

And, he even reached a point where he could breathe on his own. By early October, he said, the tracheostomy that had been put in his throat to allow the ventilator access had even been removed and he was stepped down to a lower level intensive care unit. 

Austin College Senior Chris Miller, right, died shortly before Christmas after battling COVID-19 and its complications for months.

Going Home

On Oct. 22, Chris Miller was released from TMC to rehab at home even though, Bush said doctors said his lungs still showed some damage. He wasn't as bad as when he had first arrived at the hospital.

"A week and a half later," she said he began to have trouble breathing again. Her mother took him to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

"They found out he had tracheostenosis, meaning when they took out the trache the first time, his trache had healed the wrong way," she said tracheostenosis had narrowed his own trachea and his body was retaining too much carbon dioxide. 

On October 28th, they did an emergency surgery to put him back on a ventilator. They had to do another tracheostomy because they could not get a tube down his throat since his trachea had closed.

Going home again

He was at Baylor until Nov. 24 which was two days after his 22nd birthday. He was again released to rehab at home. But, the family knew it would be a long road back because he would require several surgeries to fix his trachea.

On Dec. 11th, the first surgery began. 

"The doctor told him it didn't look good," Bush said 

The doctors said his trachea was still inflamed. There was no way to go down in size — that is what the plan was, to go down in size on the artificial trachea to allow his actual trachea to heal correctly. 

Since that wasn't possible, they put the same size trachea back in and the doctor's told Miller's mom that his lungs were still showing damage. They recommended she take him to a pulmonologist. 

"During all of this, Chris still was not able to talk to us," Bush said.

But, he was able to regain some strength. He was able to walk around the house some.

"He was still hooked up to a machine that provided him with humidified room air," she said. "So he had to drag things with him if he wanted to get out of his room."

There was blood everywhere

Dec. 17 started off like just another night for Bush's brother. She had talked to him on the phone and he was trying to use a device that would allow him to speak with them. 

Then at 11 p.m., everything changed.

"My mom called me," she said.

There was blood everywhere. He was bleeding from his mouth and his nose. 

Esteria Miller said her son had a habit of calling her on his cell phone when he wanted something even though he had a bell to ring. She was just across the hall from him. She looked down and saw he was calling and remembers answering "OK, Momma's on her way."

Nothing had prepared her for what she saw when she walked into the room and turned on the lights. 

"Blood was just profusely coming out of his mouth," Esteria Miller said. "It was all on the wall."

"I called to my mother and father that they needed to call 9-1-1," she said.

While the grandparents were calling for an ambulance, she called her daughter. Bush told her mother to get towels to try to stop the bleeding. 

"It was coming so fast," Esteria Miller said. She asked him if he could breathe and he indicated he could. 

"Then, he kind of sank to the floor — slid out of the bed. He laid on the floor," she said.

When she reported that to Bush, Bush told her get him up.

"Well before I could move him — he was 300 pounds and 6.1 — he popped up. He was still breathing," Esteria Miller said.

But the blood just kept coming out his nose and mouth.

"It was just profusely coming," she repeated.

Chris Miller was not able to overcome that incident and died. His body has been sent for an autopsy to find out exactly what happened to him.

"Those results will take a while," Bush said. 

Esteria Miller said her son had experienced bleeding when he was in the hospital on the ECMO.

"They called that blood oozing," she said.

But they hadn't expected to see it again once he was released.

Bush said there were a few times during his fight with COVID-19 that they thought they might lose her brother. Twice, she said they were called because the medical staff thought he would die from the bleeding in his lungs. 

Esteria Miller said she had questioned caregivers all along about what to expect and how to respond but had not been at all prepared for what happened that last night. 

"Even with the whole stenosis issue, I don't think Texoma would have released him had they thought something like that would have happened because they were so detailed and so adamant about his care. Like, even when they thought that he was going to die there, they did above and beyond just to even allow us to see him and make sure that we knew what was going on," Bush said.

She added that they Face Timed her mother every night while family was not there.

"One of the nurses who was not familiar with black hair, she wanted to make sure my son Chris had his hair braided and it looked nice so when we talked on Face Time, his hair would look nice," she said.

That nurse had gone on YouTube and found videos to teach herself how to do his hair and bought hair care products to use. 

"She braided his hair so beautifully and so tenderly, just lovingly, almost like a mother. And it made me feel so comforted that someone there was touching him like that, it just touched me so," Esteria Miller said.

While the family waits to find out exactly what happened to their son and brother, they want people to know that COVID-19 is something to take very seriously.

"I would just tell them that this virus is so unpredictable," Bush said. "To see physicians and nurses look so lost because the virus is so unpredictable. One person can be perfectly fine and then the next minute, they are fighting for their lives on a ventilator."

She said maybe the problem is people don't really understand how important oxygen is to the human body and what can happen if it doesn't get enough.

"They think, 'Oh it's a cough. I'll get over it.' But once your saturations start to go down, it's not just the tissues (not getting oxygen). It brings fear. It causes anxiety and it causes hyperventilation so then you're requiring even more oxygen. So, those that think it is just the flu, they are very confused," Bush said.

Chris Miller had just gotten his cap and gown in the weeks before he caught the virus and had his whole life ahead of him. Now, his family is left with unanswered questions and mounting medical debt.

There is a GoFundMe account set up and there have been significant contributions to it, however, his mother said, people just don't understand the amount of debt involved. She said she estimated that the bills from TMC alone were around $3 million. 

Family attorney Paul Stafford said as a friend of the family, a father and a Texan he wants people to know COVID-19 is serious. 

"This is to be taken seriously," he said. "And those among us who choose to deny reality are not in any way helping their fellow man. They are actually setting us back through their behaviors."

He added it is unfortunate that Chris Miller died in part because of this illness, but it is not a unique story. He said 330,000 Americans have died illness during the pandemic so far in the U.S. 

"The real test for humanity is not that Chris' family cries for Chris but for people who are not related to Chris to cry for him and to care for him. This the real test for humanity — not having relatives or loved ones say what happened (is awful)  or to feel a sense of either regret or remorse or sorrow. It is for those who never knew Chris to feel that. That is when we will start turning the corner on this and healing as a nation physically and psychologically." 

To help the family with medical and other expenses please see the fundraising page at: